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Senate approves D.C. vouchers, federal ban on human patents

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Senate gave final approval Jan. 22 to a school voucher program for the District of Columbia.

The contentious proposal gained passage as part of a massive spending measure that funds several agencies of the federal government. Senators voted 65-28 for the consolidated appropriations bill one day after opponents prevented action.

The legislation also contains language codifying a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office policy that prohibits patents on human beings at any stage of development. The measure, which will have to be renewed next year to maintain the ban, is designed especially to block biotechnology firms and researchers from gaining patents on human embryos.

President Bush is expected to sign the legislation.

The school-choice proposal establishes a five-year, pilot program for low-income D.C. families to use vouchers to send their children to schools of their choosing, including religious schools. Scholarships of as much as $7,500 will be available to about 1,700 students to use beginning in the 2004-05 school year.

The legislation provides $13 million for the voucher program, as well as $1 million for administrative costs, in addition to $13 million for D.C. public schools and $13 million for charter schools.

School-choice advocates applauded the Senate action, while voucher opponents — led by public-education and some church-state organizations — criticized the vote.

“Today is a great day for the school children of the District of Columbia,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “With the passage of this legislation, their parents are now going to begin to be empowered through vouchers to seek educational opportunities for their children that are sadly and tragically unavailable in the public schools of our nation’s capital.

“For the first time, people of limited and ordinary means in the District of Columbia will be given the wherewithal to emancipate their children from the public school establishment’s plantation. Parents will be enabled to find the education opportunities for their children which will prepare them to compete in America’s opportunity society, where education is one essential key to success,” Land said.

“We’re free at last,” said Virginia Walden-Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, in a written release. “After years of struggle, low-income D.C. families will finally be liberated from failing schools. For the first time, we have real hope of closing the education gap between rich and poor.”

Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, however, contended in a written statement that “voucher supporters’ political goals take priority over students’ real needs. [A]s long as district schools are treated as a laboratory for ill-conceived schemes like vouchers, the real needs of D.C. students will be unmet. We will continue to fight to ensure that this is not the first step toward a national voucher program, as we know it is intended to be.”

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, asserted in a written release, “Religious Right activists are a step closer to reaching one of their primary goals — which is to see a public school system gradually replaced by taxpayer-supported religious schools.”

Clint Bolick, vice president of the Institute for Justice, said the legal issues concerning vouchers have been decided and a “lawsuit would be borderline frivolous.” Bolick, in a written release, said he expects the program nevertheless to be challenged in court. The Institute for Justice has defended education-choice programs throughout the country.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld in 2002 a school-choice program in Cleveland, Ohio, that permits 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.

Bush strongly supported the voucher proposal, as did 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.

In a 1998 poll by The Washington Post, 56 percent of D.C. residents favored a federally funded voucher program, while 36 percent opposed the plan. Among low-income black residents, the margin was 65 percent for vouchers and 28 percent opposed.

According to The Center for Education Reform, 1,000 students are on waiting lists for both the city’s magnet and charter schools. When philanthropists placed $2 million into a private scholarship fund, more than 10,000 families applied for 1,000 spots.

In friend-of-the-court briefs, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission 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 ERLC and other pro-life organizations, meanwhile, have stood in opposition to patents on human beings as the possibility of biotech firms gaining such government approval has increased in recent years.

In calling for House of Representatives support for his patenting-ban amendment last summer, Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., the lead sponsor, cited a recent report by a Chicago research team that it had created “she-males.” The researchers injected male cells into female embryos and allowed them to grow for six days in an attempt to find cures for genetic disorders. They also said they hope to patent this research.

“No one should be able to own a human being at any stage of development,” Weldon said then. “Congress has never spoken to this issue, and I felt it was past time that we did.”

The consolidated spending bill that both the voucher and patenting measures were included in came to the Senate as a conference report approved by the House in December. On Jan. 21, supporters of the legislation failed to overcome opponents’ delaying tactics. A vote to invoke cloture and bring the conference report up for a vote fell far short of the 60 votes needed. The next day, the cloture vote was 61-32, ending debate and resulting in a floor vote.