WASHINGTON-On Capitol Hill, all eyes have been focused on the House, as efforts to pass healthcare reform have grown increasingly dramatic. But a less-watched debate began in the Senate Tuesday, which offered a second chance for the Washington, D.C. private school voucher program that Congress phased out last year. The effort, however, was quickly squashed by a vote Tuesday night, with most Democrats voting against it along with Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid promised in January that he would allow debate about the program on the Senate floor. And on Tuesday, the Senate began considering a bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration, which included an amendment by Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., to reinstate vouchers for district schoolchildren.
The amendment was defeated 42-55, mostly along party lines.
Lieberman's amendment would have reopened the program to new students and raised the scholarship awards to low-income parents from $7,500 to $9,000 for elementary students and up to $11,000 for high schoolers. These numbers are still lower than what D.C. Public Schools spend per student each year.
Sens. Robert Byrd (D-WVa.), John Ensign (R-Nev.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), George Voinovich (R-Ohio), and Susan Collins (R-Maine) had signed onto the amendment as co-sponsors.
Feinstein and Bill Nelson of Florida were the only Senate Democrats to join Lieberman in voting for the amendment (Byrd was absent).
"What is everybody scared of? Why not reauthorize it?" said Feinstein from the floor Tuesday, citing the positive achievement reports on the program.
"It's been very rare when I've been involved in a debate in the Senate on a matter, where I haven't felt there were some respectable good arguments on the other side," Lieberman said from the floor. "But I must say on this one, I can't think of a single good reason to be opposed to this amendment."
Though the majority of the chamber voted against the program, only one senator rose to speak against the vouchers from the floor, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. Several in the Democratic caucus, like Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., have voiced their opposition in the past.
The Secular Coalition for America, a longtime opponent of school vouchers, sent an "action alert" to its constituents, requesting that they call their senators to oppose the amendment. "By continuing this program, those of us who do not wish to subsidize someone else's church will continue to be forced to do so through our federal tax dollars," the alert noted, adding that vouchers are designed to "aid struggling Christian schools" and force students "to attend religious schools or remain in the failing public school system."
A 2002 Supreme Court decision, however, found that voucher programs are constitutional as long as they do not impose or influence school choices for parents.
The National Education Association, representing teachers' labor unions, also opposes the program.
Congress closed the program to new students last year, cutting enrollment from about 1,700 students to approximately 1,300 students. And voucher advocates are not optimistic that Congress will renew funding for a dying program over the next couple of years to support students that are still attending voucher schools. The D.C. government has not yet moved to fund the program locally, insisting that it is already dealing with serious budget shortfalls.
Meanwhile, President Obama sent Congress his blueprint to reform President Bush's major education initiation, No Child Left Behind. Broadly speaking, the administration plans to focus less on annual testing scores and more on raising graduation rates.
"Through this plan we are setting an ambitious goal: All students should graduate from high school prepared for college and a career-no matter who you are or where you come from," the president said over the weekend. He emphasized that priority last week by donating $750,000 of his $1.4 million Nobel Peace Prize award to nonprofit groups promoting higher education and scholarship funds.