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Speaker Boehner (AP/Photo by Alex Brandon)

Vouchers revived

Education | President Obama, despite his own opposition, agreed in Friday's budget deal to reopen the D.C. school voucher program

WASHINGTON-A couple thousand low-income children in District of Columbia will be happy about the budget bill for the current fiscal year that President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Speaker of the House John Boehner agreed to Friday night: It includes the reopening of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides scholarships to low-income families to send their children to a school of their choice. Congress will likely pass the budget bill midweek.

Democrats closed the program to new students in 2009, phasing it out, but when Republicans took the majority in the House of Representatives this year, Boehner pressed hard to reopen the program. He introduced the SOAR (Scholarships for Opportunity and Results) Act that reopened the program for another five years, allowing new students in and upping the scholarships from $7,000 per child to up to $8,000 to $12,000 per child, depending on grade level. The act includes provisions for the 216 students who had been accepted into the program in 2009 but were barred after Democrats closed the program. The voucher bill is the only measure Boehner has introduced as speaker.

Boehner also invited current students in the program and their families to be his guests at the State of the Union address earlier this year. When the House passed the bill reopening the program March 30, he choked up while speaking about it from the House floor: "Let's give these kids in our capital city a real chance at success and a real shot at the American dream that they don't have." The measure faced stiffer opposition in the Senate, though it had two Democratic supporters, Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

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Since the president agreed to include the SOAR Act in the final budget bill deal that averted a government shutdown last week, the Senate is likely to swallow the program now, even though Obama previously issued a statement saying he "strongly opposes" it. But the program's opponents haven't conceded yet, so voucher advocates voiced cautious optimism until the vote is final.

"D.C. parents are excited that Speaker Boehner has been such a champion on this issue," said Andrew Campanella of the Alliance for School Choice. "We look forward to enrolling new students in the program if this goes through."

D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown and the majority of the council members support the voucher program, but Mayor Vincent Gray and the district's congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, do not. Gray called the D.C. deal, which included a ban on local funding for abortion, "ludicrous."

"While one rider purports to provide educational aid to children in need, the other takes away desperately needed aid from poor women," Gray said in a statement. "Hypocrisy is alive and well in the United States Congress." The act includes $40 million in additional funding for D.C. public and charter schools, designed to diffuse criticism that the $20 million voucher program is draining money from public schools.

Holmes Norton went further. She called the D.C. elements of the budget bill "the functional equivalent of bombing innocent civilians." She added, in an interview with WTTG-TV, "It's time that the District of Columbia told the Congress to go straight to hell." Holmes Norton and Gray will attend a rally against the D.C. riders-the voucher program and the ban on abortion funding-on Monday evening outside one of the Senate office buildings. D.C. Vote, the group organizing the protest, said that Obama had "sacrificed the right of D.C. residents to get a deal on the federal budget bill."

Congress approves all of the District of Columbia's appropriations, and Gray brings up his opposition to federal oversight of the District of Columbia almost every time he speaks, though the district relies on federal funding for about 35 percent of its revenue. He sees the voucher program as an ideological experiment of lawmakers and has repeated what President Obama has said about the program showing no record of success. But Department of Education-commissioned studies show that the scholarship program has improved voucher recipients' reading scores and raised high school graduation rates by 21 percent. Parents, too, are highly satisfied, especially when it comes to their children's safety. Four separate polls found that a large majority of D.C. residents support the program.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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