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House barely approves amendment for D.C. school voucher program

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. House of Representatives narrowly passed an amendment funding a pilot education voucher program for low-income families in the District of Columbia.

The House voted 205-203 Sept. 5 for the measure, which would provide a scholarship of as much as $7,500 per student to be used at any D.C. private school, secular or religious. The vote came on an amendment to the D.C. appropriations bill. The House has yet to vote on the full spending measure.

President Bush strongly supports the voucher plan, as do D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams and D.C. school board President Peggy Cafritz. Criticism of the district’s public schools is common, and recent tests showed D.C. ranked below every state in basic skills in the fourth and eighth grades.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, commented to Baptist Press after the vote that “all Americans concerned about the future of our nation, which is embodied in our children, should be relieved that a bare majority of congressmen decided to vote with parents who are trapped in the worst schools in America to give them additional resources to make better educational choices for their children.”

But, he noted, “Americans should be appalled that the vote was so close, considering the fact that congressmen choose private schooling for their own children at several times the national average.

“Let’s be clear,” Land said. “The African American mayor of the District of Columbia, the African American president of the D.C. school board and a significant majority of the predominantly African American parents of the district’s school children strongly support this attempt through vouchers to enable them to make better educational choices for their children. They are being opposed predominantly by affluent, white Democrats who are the bondservants of the public teacher unions and are voting against choice for poor children while exercising it for themselves. It has the rank odor of hypocrisy.”

Only four Democrats joined with 201 Republicans in voting for the amendment, which would give priority status to students in public schools with the lowest achievement records. Fourteen Republicans voted with 188 Democrats and an independent in opposition to the proposal.

In a vote later in the day, the House turned back an amendment by Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., to strip the $10 million allotted for the first year of the program. Another attempt to defeat the proposal may be considered before a final vote on the appropriations bill.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a similar amendment to its version of the D.C. appropriations bill Sept. 4, but the full Senate has yet to hold a floor vote on the measure.

The legislation, which provides new funds for the voucher plan, could assist as many as 2,000 D.C. students.

The executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice said the House vote moved parents “one step closer to liberation from failing schools.”

“For poor black parents in the District of Columbia, school choice is the only hope for a good education and a better life for their children,” Virginia Walden-Ford said in a written statement. “There is no more important civil right than the right to a good education, and we hope that the Senate will not block the schoolhouse doors for D.C. parents.”

Public school and teachers organizations, as well as some civil liberties groups, continue to lead opposition to voucher programs.

Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, said in a written release after the House vote, “D.C. public school students need Congress to sincerely address their needs by providing them with quality teachers, smaller class sizes and better facilities. In contrast, this voucher program neglects the vast majority of students by ignoring the real problems facing D.C. public schools.”

The ERLC’s Land said he “would encourage all Americans to find out how their congressional representatives voted on this issue and let them know how they feel. I have contacted my congresswoman.”

In friend-of-the-court briefs, the ERLC has supported the inclusion of religious schools in education choice programs, saying the government cannot discriminate against religion when it decides to offer a benefit that can be used at other private institutions.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld last year 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.
Roll call No. 478 on the D.C. school choice amendment may be accessed on the Internet by going to www.house.gov and clicking on “find vote information” to reach recorded votes in the 108th Congress.