October 1 — 2:09 pm, 2003

DC school voucher plan withdrawn, for now

Lacking the 60 votes needed to advance a proposal for Washington, DC that would have established the first federally funded school voucher program in U.S. history, Senate Republicans have withdrawn the bill after heated, partisan debate on the Senate floor.

Community groups opposed to President Bush’s voucher initiative are cautiously celebrating after weeks of intense mobilization against the plan, which would have given at least 1,700 DC schoolchildren from low-income families vouchers worth up to $7,500 to use towards tuition at private or parochial schools.

While Bush’s Senate allies portrayed themselves as advocates for African American schoolchildren, Melody Webb, director of the organizing group Stop DC Vouchers cheered the blocking of the bill as a victory for public education.

"The Senate has halted attempts to suck out the life-blood of public education: a voucher plan that would drain away funding for needed school reform," Webb said in a statement released October 1.

Several DC community groups have been organizing against the voucher plan since the House approved it by a one-vote margin during an unscheduled vote in early September. The funding for vouchers was included in Washington’s operating budget-$5.6 billion in 2004-which Congress must approve annually.

Iris Toyer, chair of the parent organizing group Parents United for the DC Public Schools, said the voucher issue has distracted the predominantly African American DC community from pressing city leaders to address the structural issues which continue to plague the under-resourced district.

"This did not come out of our community," Toyer said, pointing out that the program would have served only a small percentage of Washington’s 60,000 students, most of whom are from low-income Black families.

President Bush revived his efforts to establish a federal voucher program last July during a speech made at a DC charter school, two years after Congress struck down an earlier private school voucher proposal.

He had called the voucher plan for the nation’s capital "the beginning of an experiment that will show whether or not private school choice makes a difference in quality education in public schools."

These remarks, said Webb, made explicit the President’s hope that a DC voucher program would spur the creation of further voucher experiments across the nation, an argument that has frequently been made by opponents of the DC voucher proposal.

"We know that we’d be the guinea pigs," Webb said of the conservative strategy behind the plan.

The Bush administration’s 2004 budget proposal included a $75 million "Choice Incentive Fund," which would offer state grants for voucher programs.

Currently, just three states-Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin-have implemented limited voucher programs that provide some students with private school tuition assistance.

Debra Kahn, education secretary under Mayor Street, said she doubted that a voucher plan would be initiated in Philadelphia in the near future.

"We really need to put our resources into improving all of our public schools for all our students," Kahn said, reaffirming Street’s opposition to publicly funded vouchers for private school tuition. "[Vouchers are] no substitute for improving the quality of public education across the board."

But one long-time voucher supporter, Philadelphia State Representative Dwight Evans, said that if federal money was offered to establish a pilot voucher program he would support establishing one here.

"If there’s going to be federal demonstration money available for vouchers, why not have it in Philadelphia?" Evans said.

Voucher supporters in Congress could still try to roll the DC voucher program or funding for Bush’s choice grant program into the federal budget bill to be voted on in the coming weeks.

For more information on this debate see the Fall 2003 issue of the Notebook, "Understanding School Choice." To learn more about Stop DC Vouchers, visit www.lobbyline.com.

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