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New law may have killed D.C. school choice

WASHINGTON (BP)–The newly enacted, $410 billion omnibus spending measure may have sounded the death knell for the District of Columbia’s school-choice program.

The legislation, signed into law March 11 by President Obama, continues the voucher program for low-income families through the 2009-10 school year but requires it to be reauthorized by Congress and endorsed by the D.C. government to exist after that time. The law will have the effect of killing the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, since approval by both Congress and the city is unlikely, school-choice supporters charged.

“In drafting this bill, Democrats put their political agenda ahead of educating our children,” said Sen. John Ensign, R.-Nev. “As a result, students who chose to leave a failing school and attend a better, safer school will have to return to the school they decided to leave. This is such a tragic situation.”

Ensign offered an amendment March 10 to continue the voucher program, but it was defeated in a 58-39 vote. Two Democrats, Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Mark Warner of Virginia, and an independent, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, joined 36 Republicans in supporting the amendment. The Senate approved the overall bill later the same day.

Sen. Richard Durbin, D.-Ill., defended the reauthorization requirement after 2009-10, saying, according to The Washington Post, “Congress will take a look at the program and decide if the money is well spent.” Obama and D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty both said they believe the students already receiving vouchers should be able to remain in the program until they graduate from high school, The Washington Times reported March 13.

Under the program, federal money is provided for scholarships of as much as $7,500 to be used at D.C. private schools, whether they are secular or religious. About 1,700 students are part of the initiative, The Post reported.

In 2007, the district’s fourth- and eighth-grade students ranked below students from all 50 states in test scores, according to one assessment reported by the Independent Women’s Forum.

Public school and teachers organizations, as well as some civil liberties groups, are among leaders in opposing voucher programs.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld in 2002 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.
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.

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