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Senate committee gives boost to D.C. vouchers pilot plan

WASHINGTON (BP)–A pilot school choice program for the District of Columbia has cleared a significant hurdle in the U.S. Senate.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted 16-12 Sept. 4 for an amendment to permit D.C. to inaugurate a voucher program for low-income families. Later, the committee unanimously approved the D.C. appropriations bill, which includes the school choice plan.

The program would provide a scholarship of as much as $7,500 per student. A family could use a voucher at any D.C. private school, secular or religious. Students in public schools with the lowest achievement records would be given priority. The program is expected to assist about 2,000 students.

Sen. Dianne Feinsten of California broke ranks with her fellow Democrats to deliver the victory for voucher proponents. She worked with Sen. Mike DeWine, R.-Ohio, to make some changes in the original proposal, including adding religion as part of the program’s nondiscrimination policy and revising language so it more closely tracked, Feinstein said, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling in favor of a similar Ohio voucher plan.

Sen. Robert Byrd, D.-W.Va., joined Feinstein in voting for the amendment, offsetting the “no” vote of Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, the only Republican panel member to oppose the voucher plan. The committee has 15 GOP members and 14 Democrats. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D.-La., voted “present.”

Feinstein said in a written statement that she has “begun to rethink public education, and I think we spend too much time supporting old structures and not enough time on what works for children.”

“Washington, D.C., schools spend $10,800 per student, and there still is a very high rate of failure. If we look at what works for children, we would probably agree that different models have to be provided, because what works for one child may not necessarily work for another.

“Ultimately this issue is not about ideology or political correctness,” she said. “It is about providing a new opportunity for good education, which is the key to success.”

It is uncertain when the D.C. appropriations bill will reach the Senate floor. The House of Representatives was expected to vote on a similar voucher plan Sept. 5.

Foes of the voucher program expressed some optimism they might still defeat the measure. Committee Democrats hope to gain 41 votes on the Senate floor to mount a successful filibuster, according to The Washington Post. If a filibuster is attempted, supporters of the proposal will need 60 votes to invoke cloture and break the filibuster.

“While this vote is a setback, I do not believe this voucher proposal will become law,” said Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way.

D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams is pushing the voucher plan, as is D.C. school board President Peggy Cafritz. They also have the support of President Bush.

In July, Williams said, “Thousands of children can’t wait until we do everything we need to do to improve the school system.” Recent tests showed the district ranked below every state in basic skills in the fourth and eighth grades.

In friend-of-the-court briefs, the Southern Baptist 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 U.S. Supreme Court upheld last year a school choice program in Cleveland 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.