Senate OKs first federal school-voucher plan

By The Associated Press
01.23.04

WASHINGTON — The Senate approved the country’s first federal school-voucher program yesterday, a District of Columbia experiment with implications for school choice nationwide.

The $13 million plan would award private-school vouchers to at least 1,700 poor students in the district, home to a chronically struggling system of 65,000 students. Students must gain admission to a private school and cover tuition or other costs exceeding their vouchers.

The Senate’s action, following the House’s approval of the plan last month, gives an election-year win to President Bush, who views choice as integral to public school reform. Bush has already proposed another $50 million for voucher programs in the next budget year.

Jeanne Allen, president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, said states and school districts will still drive decisions over whether to offer private-school choice. But the move by Congress for the district “gives a tremendous boost to the cause of more choice for parents, and makes it something people across the country will want to know about,” she said.

The voucher plan is part of a massive, overdue spending bill awaiting Bush’s signature.

Voucher opponents immediately began talking of ways to undo the congressional action.

“Vouchers have been shown time and again to drain dollars from public schools and fail to improve student achievement,” said Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association. “Today, the Senate let down America’s schoolchildren and taxpayers.”

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said opponents will offer a bill to repeal the voucher provision and redirect its money to the district’s public schools. “The best way to stop this administration’s plans for privatization is for the voters of D.C. and the nation to privatize George Bush on Election Day,” Kennedy said.

For the district, the voucher package comes with an extra $1 million for administrative costs, $13 million for its charter schools and $13 million for its other public schools.

The U.S. education secretary and the district’s mayor will choose a group to administer the voucher program. The two officials, under the legislation, are to work out such details as teacher quality criteria and “strong accountability measures” for student progress.