WASHINGTON, D.C.-The first and only federal school voucher program, one that serves 1,900 children, is about to die a quiet death at the hands of Congress, despite its enormous popularity.
Under spending legislation Congress just passed, the Washington, D.C., $14 million school voucher program will come to an end after the 2009-10 school year, unless both Congress and the District of Columbia's council reauthorize it. Democrats, the district's council, and the local teachers union have historically opposed the program, which Republicans passed in 2004 with the support of then-D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams. Now with a Democrat-controlled Congress and a president who opposes vouchers, the program is all but certain to end. Some Republicans, who have hoped that a successful program in D.C. could extend elsewhere, see the move as a power play by Democrats.
"They're tied to the teachers unions, they can say all they want that they're looking out for the rights of kids," said Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., who is the top Republican on the House Education Committee. "It's unconscionable."
McKeon is stunned that Democrats oppose a program that he believes has helped so many families who vote Democratic in the district. Thousands are on the waiting list to receive the scholarships that have allowed children of low-income families to attend private schools like Sidwell Friends, where the Obama girls attend.
Single mom Verdill Bennett works as a traffic controller at Georgetown University. She has had three children in private schools for the last four years through the voucher program. She votes Democratic and was surprised to hear that many in the party, including her representative, Eleanor Holmes Norton, oppose the program.
"That would be a big mistake to stop this program because it's helping black youth," she told me. "A lot of kids act out because they can't read or write, and they're ashamed to tell somebody." She called the vouchers "a blessing, it's a blessing from God."
Vouchers have tepid advocates in both Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of D.C. schools, and in Mayor Adrian Fenty, who originally opposed the idea before he took office in 2006. Program supporters have called on the mayor to lobby Congress for its preservation.
The program is small-only 4 percent of the District's nearly 50,000 students receive the scholarships. It's more cost-effective than the $13,000- per-student public- school system, one of the worst and most expensive in the country. Each student in the voucher program gets $7,500 for tuition, and fewer than half of students in the program use the full scholarship, according to the program's administrators.
Democrats' main argument against vouchers is that they suck resources away from the public-school system, leaving students there worse off. The $14 million voucher program, though, doesn't draw any funding from the budget for public schools, and Congress even sweetened the original legislation for voucher critics by providing more funds to both D.C. public and charter schools.
Though Democratic leaders have recently denied that they want to kill the program, some Democrats admitted earlier their desire to be rid of it. As D.C.'s delegate in Congress, Norton has strongly opposed vouchers and told The Washington Post last summer, "the Democratic Congress is not about to extend this program." Other Democrats WORLD interviewed said they would vote against it as well. The man behind the provision to end the vouchers, Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., chair of the Appropriations Committee, said that children with scholarships to private schools now should be prepared to reenter public schools.
Even the editorial board of the liberal Washington Post wrote at the beginning of March that Democrats were captive to their own political interests and those of the teachers unions in opposing vouchers: "Why else has so much time and effort gone into trying to kill off what, in the grand scheme of government spending, is a tiny program? Why wouldn't Congress want to get the results of a carefully calibrated scientific study before pulling the plug on a program that has proved to be enormously popular? Could the real fear be that school vouchers might actually be shown to be effective in leveling the academic playing field?"
Preliminary studies have shown only modest improvements in test scores for those in the voucher program, though parents have expressed satisfaction. The most recent study to be released in the spring will examine the first three years of the program, which some education experts agree is a short time to determine vouchers' effectiveness.
"If you're a kid coming into a private school from a low-performing school, it may take a few years to catch up and begin to show improvement," said Byron Davis, spokesman for the Washington Scholarship Fund, which runs the program.
Even if the spring report shows the program to be wildly successful, with the Democrats in control, Republicans don't expect vouchers to pass through in congressional legislation anytime soon. "Politically, it's a dead issue," said McKeon. "I'm a realist."
Meanwhile, Bennett's 18-year-old daughter, Laurencia, is about to graduate from Georgetown Visitation, a local private school. She was an honor student in D.C. public schools, but when she moved to the private school four years ago, she dropped to a C average. "D.C. public schools aren't teaching them what they should," said her mom. After two years there, Laurencia worked her way onto the dean's list and has applied to nine colleges.
It was an unusual sight when D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, a Democrat, came to lobby Congress to continue funding the city's school voucher program last year. Before becoming mayor, Fenty was an outspoken opponent of vouchers, and his view was in lockstep with most of the other Democratic politicians in the District.
While opposition to school vouchers is part of the party's platform, a minority of Democrats around the country have begun supporting those programs on state and local levels.
Louisiana's Democratic legislature passed a voucher program for New Orleans last year, authored by Democrats. The program, similar to the Washington program, provides $6,300 scholarships for 1,500 children of low-income families.
In Florida's legislature, Democrats originally opposed a $30 million tax-credit scholarship program, but last year one-third of Democratic lawmakers voted for its extension.
Over the last couple of years, several Democratic governors have supported voucher or tax-credit programs for students: Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.
In the U.S. Senate, vouchers have an advocate in Joe Lieberman, an Independent from Connecticut who votes with Democrats. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California also sponsored the D.C. voucher bill.
"I have met with some of these children and know that they want to continue this program and benefit from educational opportunities that would otherwise be closed to them," Lieberman wrote in a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee, asking them to continue the D.C. voucher program. "The education of these low-income children should not be held hostage to congressional inaction and partisan politics."
President Obama's Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, opposes school vouchers on principle, but he surprised many by announcing recently that he believes the D.C. program should continue. The Associated Press paraphrased him saying "it's a mistake to take kids out of school where they are happy, safe and satisfied."