Misplaced Priority: House Ed. Panel Plans To Push D.C. School Vouchers

Some members of Congress are determined to pick a fight over vouchers.

It looks increasingly like the first major church-state battle in the new Congress will be over voucher subsidies for religious schools.

“The Wall of Separation” reported last week that vouchers could be on the horizon, and now we have confirmation from a source close to congressional Republicans.

The Washington Times reported yesterday that “key House Republican lawmakers say they will push a popular school-voucher program that was canceled by the Obama administration.”

The reference here is to a voucher scheme in Washington, D.C., that was strong-armed through Congress during the George W. Bush years. The “experiment” was authorized for five years and has expired (although currently participating students are being allowed to continue their enrollment). It did nothing to boost student academic achievement, served mainly to prop up financially shaky religious schools at taxpayer expense and included private schools that hired uncertified teachers who lacked college degrees.

Naturally, the new leadership in Congress wants to allocate a few million taxpayer dollars to revive it. (Where’s that concern about cutting the federal budget that we keep hearing about?)

U.S. Rep. John Kline (R.-Minn.), who is in line to chair the House Education and Labor Committee, will push to resuscitate the D.C. voucher plan, a staffer said.

“Congressman Kline is very focused on restoring the program,” Alexa Marrero told The Times.

The Times reports that President Barack Obama, who has opposed vouchers in the past, might be wavering. The newspaper claims that Obama stated recently that he and congressional Republicans might find “potential common ground” over the D.C. voucher plan.

Not quite. The Times, which has a far-right editorial perspective, has mangled the president’s quote. According to Politico, what Obama actually said was, “I think everybody in this country thinks that we’ve got to make sure our kids are equipped in terms of their education, their science background, their math backgrounds to compete in this new global economy. And that’s going to be an area where I think there’s potential common ground.”

Obama’s quote was in reference to education policy generally, not vouchers.

Still, you can sure that some members of Congress will be determined to pick this fight. Democrats still hold an edge in the Senate, and many leaders there support public schools and oppose taxpayer funding of religious and other private schools.

Another wild card is Vincent Gray, D.C.’s incoming mayor. Gray said he opposed vouchers during the campaign. The man he defeated, Adrian Fenty, was pro-voucher. Congress sometimes treats D.C. as a personal fiefdom, but if Gray sticks to his pledge and opposes expansion of the plan, it should help our side.

It’s pretty obvious that D.C. has some troubled public schools. The voucher plan was pitched as a way to boost student achievement and help kids in need. It has failed spectacularly.

That isn’t surprising. I’m not sure what made anyone think that allowing a tiny percentage of D.C. students to bolt the public schools for unregulated private institutions was going to lift all boats.

It’s time to try something else – and this time it should be a plan that helps all the youngsters in D.C. and doesn’t erode the church-state wall.