Revival of Failed DC Voucher Program Sneaks in as a Rider to Budget Bill

By Nate Hennagin

Last Friday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), and President Obama reached an agreement in the 11th hour to prevent a government shutdown and keep the government open for another week. Unfortunately, that agreement included Speaker Boehner’s pet project: the DC voucher program. H.R. 1437, the continuing resolution that funds the government through FY2011, reauthorizes the DC voucher program, opening it up to new students and increasing the amount of the voucher payment. This bill passed the House yesterday by a vote of 260-167 and in the Senate by a vote of 81-19. It is expected to be signed by President Obama in the next few days.

The taxpayer-funded voucher program was initially started as a five-year pilot program in 2003 that provided a voucher with a value of up to $7,500 to about 1,700 students. Several Department of Education reports show that the program did not significantly improve academic achievement in math or reading. In addition, a 2007 study by the Government Accountability Office identified serious accountability flaws. For example, voucher students attended private schools that had teachers without bachelor’s degrees and no certificates of occupancy. In light of these studies, Congress decided to phase out the program, allowing only those students already enrolled in the program to continue receiving a voucher.

This new budget compromise not only funds the DC voucher program for the rest of the fiscal year, but also includes the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act, which reauthorizes the program for the next five years.

The DC voucher program should not have been reauthorized because it harms religious liberty, weakens civil rights and liberties protections for students and teachers, and does not improve education. Furthermore, H.R. 1437 is yet another example of Congress’ lack of respect for the District of Columbia. Congress used the District as political leverage in the compromise, not only by including the DC voucher reauthorization in the bill, but also by inserting a measure that prevents DC from using its own local funds for abortions for low-income individuals. In fact, DC residents and leaders were so angered by their treatment in the compromise that they took to the streets in protest earlier this week, which led to acts of civil disobedience and the arrest of Mayor Gray and several members of the DC Council.

Yesterday, at a press conference at a local public school, Mayor Gray specifically voiced his opposition to Congress’ reauthorization of the DC voucher program. Among the distinguished speakers from local education and civil rights organizations was AU’s Barry Lynn gave a particularly rousing speech, stating:

“Speaker Boehner and the other voucher boosters who railroaded this deal through would never tolerate such congressional meddling in the cities and towns of their districts. This scheme will cost at least $100 million, money that, since this is a federal program, will come from the pockets of Americans everywhere. Yet the cry of so many conservatives these days is “local control.” So let’s have some in the District of Columbia. Mayor Gray and other elected officials have made it clear that they don’t want the voucher plan.”

Until Congress affords DC the same rights of self-government that every other state is provided, it appears voucher proponents will continue to force all Americans to pay for religious instruction and discrimination in the District.