House Leaders Hope To Revive Voucher Scheme In Washington, D.C.

A congressional fight over voucher subsidies for religious schools looks to be on the horizon.

Republicans took official control of the House of Representatives this month, and increasingly the party’s leadership is talking about reviving a voucher plan aimed at the city of Washington, D.C. The D.C. effort could be the precursor to a more ambitious nationwide plan.

The Washington Times, a newspaper close to the GOP power structure in Washington, reported in November that “key House Republican lawmakers say they will push a popular school-voucher program that was canceled by the Obama administration.”

The paper was referring to a voucher scheme in Washington, D.C., that was strong-armed through Congress during the George W. Bush years. Described as an “experiment,” the plan was authorized for five years and has expired (although currently participating students are being allowed to continue their enrollment).

Backers promised that the plan would boost student achievement across the board, but it failed to do that. Independent studies showed no academic improvement for the targeted population. Critics said the program mainly served to prop up financially shaky religious schools at taxpayer expense. They also noted that it included private schools that hired uncertified teachers who lacked college degrees.

Nevertheless, U.S. Rep. John Kline (R.-Minn.), who is in line to chair the House Education and Labor Committee, plans to 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.

President Barack Obama has opposed vouchers in the past, saying he would focus on charter schools and public school choice.

In November, Obama called on House Republicans to work with him to improve education, remarking, “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.”

Voucher boosters are working with a front group called D.C. Parents for School Choice, which will lobby on behalf of the voucher scheme.

On Nov. 30, Education Secretary Arne Duncan raised eyebrows by appearing as the keynote speaker at a “National Summit on Education Reform” sponsored by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Bush is an enthusiastic promoter of vouchers, but Duncan did not endorse the idea during his remarks.

Voucher proposals in Congress may still face hurdles in the Senate, which remains in Democratic hands. In addition, Vincent Gray, Washington D.C.’s new mayor, said he opposed vouchers during the campaign. (The man he defeated, incumbent Adrian Fenty, was pro-voucher.)

Lobbyists for the Roman Catholic hierarchy, which is worried about declining enrollment in its parochial school system, will also likely join the effort to renew the D.C. plan.