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D.C. vouchers bill squeaks by House committee, heads to floor

WASHINGTON (BP)–A House of Representatives committee barely approved a school vouchers program for the District of Columbia July 10, setting the stage for a floor vote on the controversial proposal.

The House Government Reform Committee voted 22-21 for the D.C. Parental Choice Incentive Act, H.R. 2556. Two Republicans joined all the Democrats present and an independent in voting against the bill.

The measure would authorize $15 million to be used in the first year for scholarships to be used by low-income families at district elementary or secondary schools of their choice, including private religious ones. The maximum voucher would be $7,500, and it could be used for tuition, fees and transportation.

“I have traditionally opposed federal dollars going to private schools because I think federal dollars ought to be targeted to public schools,” said Rep. Tom Davis, R.-Va., chief sponsor of the legislation and chairman of the Government Reform Committee. “But, for the District [of Columbia], I think we have to ask this question: Wouldn’t more choices funded by new federal dollars provide a needed alternative for low-income children attending low-performing schools? The goal of school choice in D.C. is addition, not subtraction. We all want the District’s education system to improve, and this is at the very least a short-term effort to do something about it.”

The Institute for Justice, a Washington-based organization that has defended school-choice programs in court, applauded the vote.

“D.C. choice means economically disadvantaged parents can finally vote with their feet,” Institute for Justice President Chip Mellor said in a written release. “That personal empowerment can only spark reform within the public schools.”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State criticized the measure and also criticized provisions that permit religious schools that participate to hire employees based on their beliefs and to continue the display of religious symbols.

“This bill undermines public education and diverts taxpayer dollars to religious schooling,” Americans United Executive Director Barry Lynn said in a written statement. “The District’s children need real solutions to school problems, not political grandstanding like this bill. It singles out religious schools and says they don’t have to play by the rules that all other publicly funded schools must follow.”

Last year the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a school-choice program in Cleveland, Ohio, that permitted the use of vouchers at religious schools. The high court ruled the program was “entirely neutral with respect to religion” and did not offend the First Amendment ban on government establishment of religion.

President Bush and D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams support the legislation to help the D.C. school district, which ranked below every state in recent academic tests.

Davis’ bill permits the use of vouchers only in D.C. schools. Another proposal, the D.C. Student Opportunity Scholarship Act, H.R. 684, would allow parents to use the vouchers also in Maryland and Virginia schools. Rep. Jeff Flake, R.-Ariz., is the chief sponsor of that bill, which has yet to be acted on.

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