Stage Set for DC Voucher Showdown

Published September 1, 2003

The stage is nearly set for the final act of this year’s Congressional showdown on school vouchers for the District of Columbia. But after some key players unexpectedly switched positions, nothing is certain about what will transpire when Congress reconvenes after its traditional August recess.

Congress passed a DC voucher bill in 1998, but it was vetoed by then-President Bill Clinton. President George W. Bush has said he would gladly sign such a bill.

With support coming from the highest echelons of both the federal government and the District of Columbia government–as well as from both sides of the political aisle–enactment of a school voucher program for low-income DC students seemed more likely than ever as the summer got underway.

The prospect was bolstered by the unexpected emergence of support from Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who explained the reasoning behind her change of view on vouchers in a July 22 Washington Post opinion piece. However, last-minute defections from former DC school voucher supporters Senators Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana) and Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania), also members of the Appropriations Committee, abruptly halted that Committee’s consideration of the measure in late July.

Inclusion of the voucher proposal in the Committee’s comprehensive spending bill for the District of Columbia is key; without it, the measure must be introduced as a stand-alone bill for consideration by the full Senate, where it would be more vulnerable to a filibuster.

The House of Representatives Appropriations Committee has included funds for a DC voucher program in its version of the appropriations bill for the District, passed on July 15.

Unprecedented Local Support

The current battle for DC school vouchers enjoys unprecedented support from top local leaders: Mayor Anthony Williams, School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, and the chair of the City Council’s Education Committee, Kevin Chavous. All are Democrats. The effort gained momentum from Bush during a July 1 speech given at KIPP DC: Key Academy, a local charter school. The President promised to request $15 million from Congress to fund a DC voucher program as part of a $75 million “Choice Incentive Fund.”

“I want my second home to become a model of excellence,” the President told a small crowd of local parents and school choice supporters, “so that when people see the educational entrepreneurial spirit alive and well in DC, they realize they can do the same in their own communities.”

Williams and U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige shared the stage with the President at the KIPP: Key Academy event to express their support for federally funded DC vouchers. A few weeks later, Williams and Chavous visited members of the House Republican Caucus to enlist their support.

“I am generally pleased with the relationship-building that has occurred between city leaders and Members of Congress around the issue of school reform in the District,” Chavous told School Reform News. “I view this effort as the first step toward creating an environment more conducive to school innovation and greater local school autonomy.”

DC’s non-voting delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who strongly objects to school vouchers, has not been pleased with the upswing in local voucher support nor her colleagues’ trips to Capitol Hill. “I don’t know what our folks were doing on that side of the aisle and on the wrong side of an issue,” she said.

Capitol Hill Activity

The House of Representatives Appropriations Committee agreed to a DC spending bill for fiscal year 2004 (H.R. 2765) that includes $10 million in new federal funds for a DC school voucher program, contingent on the program being authorized. Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Davis (R-Virginia) has been working to do just that: His Committee approved the DC Parental Choice Incentive Act of 2003 on July 10 to authorize up to $15 million for a DC program that would provide private school vouchers to low-income students, with priority given to those in low-performing schools.

On the Senate side, the Appropriations Committee began “marking up” its DC FY04 appropriations legislation (not yet numbered), which includes both an authorization and the appropriation of funds for a DC school voucher program. The process was suspended when it became clear Landrieu and Specter would vote to remove DC vouchers from the bill, upsetting the balance in favor that had been assumed by Senate staffers.

In both the House and Senate versions of the legislation, the U.S. Department of Education would oversee and evaluate the program, which would provide annual tuition vouchers worth up to $7,500 per student. The department would use a competitive grant process to select a local nonprofit organization or government entity to administer the voucher program.

“Three-Sector” Approach

The Senate version of the measure would provide $13 million for DC vouchers, as well as an additional $13 million each for traditional public schools and charter schools and $1 million for administrative costs, for a total of $40 million. This “three-sector” package reflects the wishes of Williams and Chavous, who emphasize the need for increased educational choice and quality in all of DC’s K-12 education sectors.

In testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee in June, Williams stated his view that the “three-sector approach will allow the city to leverage its best assets among public schools, public charter schools, and private/parochial schools.”

The mayor’s testimony had influence with Senator Feinstein, who served as mayor of San Francisco for 10 years.

“I believe that education is a local issue and that if the mayor wants this program, it should be given the chance to work,” Feinstein explained in the Washington Post article.

“Based on the substantial amount of money pumped into the [DC] schools and the resultant test scores, I do not believe that money alone is going to solve the problem,” she further noted. “This is why I believe the District should be allowed to try this pilot–particularly for the sake of its low-income students.”

Unexpected Opposition

By contrast, Landrieu and Specter unexpectedly came out against the measure, despite having voted for–and in the case of Landrieu, cosponsored the legislation for–DC vouchers in 1997. This drew the ire of school choice supporters like Virginia Walden-Ford, president of DC Parents for School Choice.

“I was especially disappointed in Senator Landrieu. … It did appear to me [at one time] that she understood the needs of our city,” Walden-Ford told School Reform News. “I do not believe that now.”

When Congress returns after the August recess, the DC voucher proposal will face several more hurdles: the Senate Appropriations Committee decision, consideration by the full Senate and House of Representatives, and, if one or both houses support it, reconciliation of differences in a House-Senate Conference. The outcome is far from certain.

Kelly Amis Stewart is an education consultant and coauthor of Making it Count: A Guide to High-Impact Education Philanthropy with Chester E. Finn, Jr. Her email address is [email protected].