House Speaker Boehner Pushes Hard To Revive D.C. School Vouchers

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) is determined to revive a controversial voucher plan that subsidizes religious and other private schools in Washington, D.C.

Boehner in February introduced H.R. 471, a bill that would give new life to a tuition voucher plan first put into place during the presidency of George W. Bush. Pitched as a five-year “experiment,” the voucher plan passed Congress narrowly in 2004 and expired in 2009, although President Barack Obama has agreed to allow students taking part in it to continue receiving vouchers until they graduate.

Boehner and his allies say that’s not enough. On March 1, the bill to reinstate the plan received a hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s Subcommittee on Health Care, District of Columbia, Census, and the National Archives. Under Boehner’s plan, Roman Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Islamic and other private schools in the nation’s capital would receive $100 million in public funds through vouchers over five years.

On March 10, the Boehner bill was approved by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on a 21-14 largely party-line vote. (Only Pennsylvania Republican Todd Platts joined Democrats in opposing the measure.)

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn noted that prior to the vote, Boehner gave a number of speeches during which he called for deep cuts in federal spending, insisting that the country is “broke.”

“Speaker Boehner says we’re broke and have to slash federal spending,” said Lynn. “Yet he’s willing to throw $20 million at religious and other private schools.”

Added Lynn, “This voucher scheme undermines public education and church-state separation, and I am disappointed that the House committee voted to fund it.”

At the same time, similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate. On Feb. 16, U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) held a hearing on S. 206, his bill to revive the D.C. voucher plan. During the hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Lieberman and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) threatened Washington Mayor Vincent Gray, who opposes vouchers, telling him the Senate would not approve $40 million in aid for D.C. public schools (including charters) unless he accepts the voucher plan.

Lieberman, Collins and other voucher boosters say they support a three-part approach to education in the District of Columbia consisting of traditional public schools, charter schools and private schools funded through vouchers.

“I think the extra funds that come to D.C….will be in serious jeopardy if the [voucher] funding is not part of this three-part program of public and charter schools,” Lieberman said.

Gray balked, telling the senators, “My emphasis was, and continues to be, on building a solid public education system consisting of traditional public schools and charters.”

A vote on the voucher plan was pending in the full House of Representatives as this issue of Church & State went to press.