Speaker’s Pet

As Part Of A Budget Deal With Democrats, Boehner Engineers Taxpayer Subsidies For D.C. Religious Schools

With the threat of a government shutdown looming, a backroom budget deal was reached in April that includes federal funding to reauthorize and expand the Washington, D.C., school voucher program.

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which funnels taxpayer funds to religious and other private schools, has been a pet project for Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio).

In meetings with President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats, Boehner won an agreement to extend the voucher plan, even while $38 billion was being cut from other federal programs.

The voucher scheme began as a five-year “experiment” in 2003, using federal tax dollars to pay for up to $7,500 in tuition for students to attend private schools. It was slated to end in 2008, but Congress decided to allow participating students to continue receiving vouchers until they graduated from high school.

Under the budget agreement, new students will again be admitted to the program, and funding will match Boehner’s original plan to spend $100 million over the next five years.

Boehner’s use of the budget bargaining process to railroad the voucher measure through enraged D.C. leaders and civil liberties groups who do not want federal money to fund religious schools at the expense of D.C. public schools and other public services. (Up to $80 million may be cut from D.C. schools, courts and other institutions.)

“This budget deal slashes federal spending in lots of programs, and millions of Americans may take hits,” said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “Yet somehow, amidst all of the slicing and dicing, Congress managed to come up with millions in taxpayer dollars to revive a scheme that subsidizes religious and other private schools in D.C.

“If you are a federal taxpayer, that means you will be putting your hard-earned money in the collection plates of religious denominations whether you like it or not,” continued Lynn. “It violates the fundamental American principle that religion must be supported by voluntary donations, not coerced support from the taxpayers.”

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Washington Mayor Vincent Gray have spoken out against the D.C. voucher rider and another budget negotiation provision that would ban the District from spending its own funds to provide abortions to low-income women.

“District residents are being treated as colonists of the Congress of the United States,” Norton told WTTG-TV. “We are absolutely outraged.”

Just one week prior to the budget deal, Boehner pushed through the House a separate measure to revive and expand the voucher program. H.R. 471, known as the Scholarships for Opportunity And Results (SOAR) Act, allocated $300 million over five years for education in the District. Sixty million each year would be divided equally among the voucher program, public schools and public charter schools.

The bill would allow new students to enter the voucher program, and would increase the amount of the voucher to $8,000 for K-8 students and $12,000 for high school students.

Religious Right groups praised Boehner for his efforts, and the Catholic hierarchy in D.C. also supported the move.

Prior to the House vote, opponents pointed to numerous government reports that have shown the D.C. voucher program to be ineffective. In addition, some 80 percent of students in the program use their voucher to attend religious schools that teach religious dogma, discriminate in hiring on religious grounds and have little accountability to the public.

On March 24, the National Coalition for Public Education sent a letter signed by 52 organizations to the House urging a vote against the bill. (Americans United serves as chair of the coalition.)

“Rather than extending the voucher program,” the letter said, “federal funding should be spent in more useful ways that would serve all students in Washington, D.C.”

Many members of Congress spoke out against the D.C. voucher scheme during the March 30 House floor debate.

Norton pointed out that states are permitted to make their own decisions on issues regarding education, and that D.C. should also have that right. She added that Boehner’s measure is going to further set back D.C.’s public schools.

Norton introduced an amendment to the bill that would have deleted the voucher program and divided the $60 million per year equally between public and charter schools. Her proposal was defeated 237-184.

In another attempt to block the legislation, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) argued that the bill violated the House “cut-go” rule. The cut-go rule was implemented by the Republican leaders after they took control of the House. It states that in order for a new program to be created, there must be an equal or greater amount of cuts made somewhere else to offset the cost.

This rule, and Weiner’s objection, were ignored.

Obama also weighed in the day prior to the vote, announcing that he “strongly opposed” Boehner’s measure.

In an official statement of administration policy, the White House Office of Management and Budget said “the Administration opposes the creation or expansion of private school voucher programs that are authorized by this bill.”

The White House also argued that “[p]rivate school vouchers are not an effective way to improve student achievement,” and that “the Administration opposes targeting resources to help a small number of individuals attend private schools rather than creating access to great public schools for every child.”

Despite the broad opposition to vouchers, the House passed the measure 225-195 on March 30 largely along partisan lines. Nine Republicans voted against the measure and only one Democrat, Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.), voted for it. (See how your representative voted in "School Voucher Vote," May 2011 Church & State.)

According to AU’s Lynn, the House vote proved Boehner’s measure was more about ideology than what is best for D.C.’s kids.

“A $100 million congressional giveaway to religious and other private schools is not going to help reduce the budget deficit,” said Lynn. “This wastes taxpayer dollars and undermines the public schools.

“For the past few months,” Lynn continued, “we’ve heard a constant drumbeat in Congress of ‘we’re broke; we have to slash domestic spending.’ Now we have House members voting for a taxpayer bailout of parochial schools. It’s hypocritical, and every taxpayer ought to be outraged.

“I’m especially astounded by the Tea Party members in the House,” Lynn added. “They claim to want to cut the federal budget and leave decision-making to the states and communities. Yet here they are voting for a failed federal program that tramples on local government in the District of Columbia.”

Knowing his voucher bill might not pass in the Senate, Boehner cut a deal with Senate President Harry Reid and President Obama to approve the SOAR Act as part of the stopgap spending measure. The agreement disappointed Mayor Gray and many of the city’s residents.

“Why should we have foisted upon us a voucher program?” asked Gray. “Those are decisions that should be made by the people in this city.

“While I am relieved that Congress reached an agreement so that our employees can work and city services can continue, I am also angry and extremely disappointed that the District of Columbia, once again, suffered collateral damage amidst partisan bickering,” he continued. “The District of Columbia’s right to govern itself has, once again, been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. This is ludicrous. Hypocrisy is alive and well.”