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D.C. Vouchers May Survive Despite Opposition

Kaitlynn Riely | Correspondent | Friday, June 20, 2008

D.C. Vouchers May Survive Despite Opposition

Washington (CNSNews.com) - A House appropriations subcommittee approved a bill Tuesday to fund the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program at the current-year level, effectively extending the school voucher pilot program in the nation's capital for one more year, despite heavy opposition to end the program.

D.C. appropriations will not be finalized for several more months. But should the $14.8 million in funding survive to the final bill, it would be enough to ensure the near-term survival of a scholarship program that Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and other opponents have vowed to terminate.

The Opportunity Scholarship Program was created by the D.C. School Choice Incentive Act of 2003 and is the first and only program in the country supported by federal funds. It provides vouchers of up to $7,500 for public school students Kindergarten through 12\super th \nosupersub grade to attend private schools in the nation's capital.

The five-year pilot program had been set to expire at the completion of the 2008-2009 school year.

Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, said that he does not believe vouchers serve the needs of all the District's students, but he does respect the District's right to make its own decisions.

"By providing funding, but not further authorization for this program, this year's bill is essentially a placeholder in this debate," Serrano said. "I expect that during the next year the District leaders will come forward with a firm plan for either rolling back the program, or providing some alternative options."

In his budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2009, President Bush had requested $18 million in funding for the scholarship program.

Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), the subcomittee's ranking Republican, said he was "disappointed" that the funding level did not contain the requested $3.2 million increase for the scholarship program.

Over all, the subcommittee approved $74 million in appropriations for D.C. schools.

John Schilling, chief of staff for the Alliance for School Choice, a nonpartisan group that supports vouchers and scholarship tax-credit programs, said the subcommittee funding approval was an important first step in a long process.

"At the end of the day, what's most important is the program continues to be funded, that these kids continue to be able to go to the schools that they're going to," he said.

Lori Lipman Brown, director and chief lobbyist for the Secular Coalition for America, said she was "frustrated and concerned" by the subcommittee's markup.

"This thing should not have been reauthorized at any level," Brown told Cybercast News Service on Wednesday. "It's outrageous that for five years my federal taxes have gone to subsidize someone else's church."

The Secular Coalition for America takes no position on the use of vouchers for secular private education, but said it objects to the District's voucher program because most of the schools attended by students in the program are religious.

Adam B. Schaeffer, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom, a libertarian group, said the same argument could be made about federal dollars going to religious colleges and universities. But, he said, the "intermediary level of parental choice" should eliminate Brown's concern.

"The funds go to educate the child, and whether they decide to go to a religious school or not is up to them," Schaeffer said. He added that he supports tax credits as a better approach than vouchers because they eliminate concerns raised by voucher opponents because they do not use tax dollars.

The fate of the scholarship program has inspired much debate, as proponents argue that it provides low-income students with access to better education and opponents point to government reports that show little significant statistical difference in overall test scores for scholarship recipients versus non-scholarship recipients.

Gregory M. Cork, president and CEO of the Washington Scholarship Fund, the organization that dispenses the scholarships, has told Cybercast News Service that he wants to see the voucher program continued and expanded.

"Obviously, we'd like to see as much funding as possible devoted to our program to keep benefiting our kids, but the legislative process is just beginning," Cork said Wednesday. "In the meantime, we are doing what we always do, which is run a great program, and look out for the best interest of our families."

According to the Washington Scholarship Fund, 1,904 students were enrolled at 56 non-public D.C. schools during the 2007-2008 school year.

Norton, the District of Columbia's "delegate member" of Congress, opposes the use of public funds for private schools. She did not respond to telephone calls from Cybercast News Service .

"Reauthorization of so controversial a bill, reenacting the struggle of five years ago, would be unlikely to reach the House floor," Norton wrote in a column in Tuesday's Washington Post. "Republicans passed the program by just one vote, and only after the vote was held open for 40 minutes."

The Appropriations hearing came one day after the Department of Education released a report evaluating the effect of the scholarship program after two years. The study found that reading achievement improved for most of the students, but did not find any statistically significant difference in test scores for students receiving scholarships versus students not offered the scholarships. The report noted that the program had a positive impact on parental satisfaction.

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