WASHINGTON — In what can be viewed as a late homage to departing House Speaker John Boehner, the lower chamber has adopted anew a federally funded school voucher program for students in Washington, D.C., but the proposal is likely to run into a roadblock – the White House has made its opposition known.
In a 240-191 vote, with eight Republicans voting against it and two Democrats offering support, the House sent to the Senate legislation to extend the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act at an estimated cost of $60 million annually, allowing D.C. students from eligible low-income families in kindergarten through grade 12 to attend private schools at taxpayer expense through 2021.
The measure adds a provision to the current program – those attending private institutions will be required to take the same standardized tests administered to students who remain in the district’s public schools. The new rule will enable officials to compare varying results in the educational systems.
Boehner (R-Ohio), who announced he is stepping down as the presiding officer of the House and leaving the chamber by the end of the month, choked up in his typically emotional fashion as he took to the floor to urge lawmakers to embrace the bill.
“While it’s my name on the bill, the best champions of this program are some of the most fearless kids you’ve ever seen,” Boehner said, fighting back tears. “Those of us who work here make a good living – we owe something to the kids in this town. Help these kids get over the mountain.”
Despite the passionate plea, the White House made it clear it is not buying in, releasing a statement in advance of the vote asserting that the administration “continues to strongly oppose the private school vouchers program within this legislation, known as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.”
“Rigorous evaluation over several years demonstrates that D.C. vouchers have not yielded statistically significant improvements in student achievement by scholarship recipients compared to other students not receiving vouchers,” the statement read. “In addition, H.R. 10 would extend this voucher program to a new population of students previously attending private schools. Instead of using federal resources to support a handful of students in private schools, the federal government should focus its attention and available resources on improving the quality of public schools for all students.”
The Obama administration found an ally in Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who maintained that lawmakers should “respect D.C.’s right to self-government,” adding that they “should at least care whether the program improves academic achievement, which was the stated reason for vouchers in the first place.”
“Far from helping students, however, the program has demonstrably failed,” Norton said. “According to the congressionally mandated evaluation of the program’s effectiveness, the program has failed to improve academic achievement, as measured by objective math and reading testing scores. Most important, the program has not had ‘significant impacts’ on the achievement of students who the program was designed to most benefit, those who previously attended low-performing public schools.”
Even if the program were successful, Norton argued, “it still would not be needed, least of all in the District, which has perhaps the most robust public school choice program in the country.”
“Almost 50 percent of our public school students attend charter schools, which the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranked as the strongest in the nation. In addition, 75 percent of public school students attend out-of-boundary schools. What D.C. has developed amounts to a model for choice in education.”
But House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, of California, who aborted his campaign to succeed Boehner as speaker, countered that “nothing has increased educational opportunity more than choice.”
“When money follows the students instead of schools and unions, it’s the kids who win,” he said.
The D.C. voucher program, McCarthy said, has produced “some amazing accomplishments,” noting that African-Americans comprise 95 percent of the students who receive scholarships and that they experience a 91 percent graduation rate – better than the 56 percent graduation rate of traditional D.C. public schools.
During the 2014-15 school year, 1,442 D.C. students received vouchers enabling them to attend 47 private schools. Most of those institutions – 80 percent – were religious schools. Vouchers provided up to $12,572 for high school students in the program, and up to $8,381 for those attending elementary school. Over the past 10 years, about 6,200 students have received vouchers, coming from families with an average household incomes of $20,575.
The proposal is opposed by the D.C. City Council, which maintains it should be empowered to make decisions regarding the D.C. school system. Some maintain taxpayer funds should be invested in the public school system, not distributed to private schools.
The future of the voucher program is decidedly murky. Supporters in the House don’t have sufficient votes to override a potential veto from President Obama. And it may not even attract enough support to foil a potential filibuster in the Senate. While a handful of Democrats in the upper chamber have expressed support for the measure, supporters likely have yet to reach the 60-vote threshold.
With theoretically only a few days left to serve, Boehner acknowledged that the voucher program “is personal to me and it has been for a long time.”
“But frankly, it ought to be personal to everyone in this chamber,” he said. “Those of us who work here, who make a good living here, owe something to the kids in this city. We owe the kids in this city a chance – a fighting chance. That is what I am asking you to do today. Help these kids get over the mountain. Help us keep building the little movement that could.”