Brownback Generates Welcome Stir over Expanding DC Voucher Program

Published September 1, 2005

Refreshing breezes are difficult to come by on Capitol Hill in midsummer, but Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) created an invigorating stir in late June when he broached the idea of expanding the federally funded Washington, DC school voucher experiment.

The senator proposed lifting the $7,500 annual per-student cap on vouchers and allowing needy children to use their scholarships at private schools outside the District of Columbia.

Brownback, who wields considerable clout because he chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee, argued an expansion of the program could benefit students. A shortage of high school slots in the District could leave 80 students with vouchers in hand but no private schools able to accept them this fall.

Public Hearings Planned

In deference to key District school officials and senatorial colleagues who supported setting up the five-year pilot project with vouchers in 2003, but who were leery of expanding it in midstream, Brownback decided against forcing through an immediate expansion. Public hearings on the pros and cons of expanding the voucher program could take place next year.

The Washington Scholarship Fund (WSF), the nonprofit administrator of the voucher program, has pointed out that high school tuition in the District tends to be considerably higher than $7,500 a year. Brownback noted extending the program’s boundaries just three miles past District lines into suburban Maryland and northern Virginia could add 15 private high schools as potential recipients of voucher students.

Voucher Student Numbers Increasing

Last year–its first–the program served almost 1,000 needy children in 53 private schools. That number is expected to grow to about 1,600 students in 67 private schools this fall.

“Our number one goal is to provide as many deserving DC children as possible with access to the educational opportunity of their choice,” WSF President Sally Sachar said. “We look forward to working with the mayor, local education and school leaders, officials at the U.S. Department of Education, and congressional, business, and other community leaders to identify the best ways to ensure that all students who receive Opportunity Scholarships can use them.”

DC Mayor Anthony Williams, a key local supporter of the voucher program, was among those initially skeptical about expanding it while it is still in its trial phase.

The Washington Post gave Brownback points not only for pulling back for more deliberation, but also for calling attention to a serious obstacle to educational opportunity. “Concern about the capacity of DC private schools to accommodate the demand is … well-founded,” the editors wrote on July 15. “[Pending possible expansion,] voucher supporters in the District would do well to determine if private or religious schools in the city can, with extra effort, increase their enrollment capacity.”

Merit Pay Incentives Passed

Over the past few years, the idea of boosting the pay of teachers who help raise student achievement has been gathering support among governors from both major political parties.

This summer, a decision by key players in the congressional appropriations process raised the likelihood of making federal support available for states and school districts that dare to innovate with merit pay. Teacher unions long have insisted upon seniority-based wage scales that pay teachers according to years of service, not competence.

On June 9, members of the House of Representatives Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee approved $100 million for a teacher merit pay pilot initiative. That funding would come from an existing pot of money that has been used for a variety of small projects related to professional development of teachers.

President Lends Support

“The federal government is spending tens of billions of dollars a year on K-12 education programs,” House Education Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-OH) said in a June 9 news release. “States and schools ought to be allowed to use at least a fraction of that money to provide financial rewards for highly qualified teachers and principals who are working successfully to raise student achievement.”

The appropriation subcommittee’s proposal is a pilot version of a $500 million teacher merit pay initiative proposed by President George W. Bush in September 2004 as part of his second-term agenda. According to the White House, the program would reward teachers who are top performers in closing the achievement gap between privileged and needy children, and in generally meeting the objectives of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The congressional emphasis on relating teacher pay to student achievement gives added momentum to the movement for value-added assessment, a method of evaluating teachers according to how much they help individual students advance year to year. The Teaching Commission, a bipartisan reform organization led by former IBM Chairman Louis V. Gerstner Jr., is advocating substantial bonuses for top-producing teachers.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia.

For more information …

For more information on teacher pay, see “Gerstner Commission Endorses Teacher Merit Pay,” School Reform News, April 2004, available online at

Additional information is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to, click on the PolicyBot™ button, and select the topic/subtopic combination Education/Teacher Pay.