WASHINGTON Congressional negotiators agreed yesterday on a private-school choice plan for the District of Columbia, one poised to be the first federally funded voucher program.
The deal, part of an emerging spending package for the capital city and several federal government agencies, is subject to approval by the House and Senate.
The $13 million voucher plan would let at least 1,700 poor children attend private school at public expense, provided they gain admission to a school and cover any outstanding costs. The maximum award per student would be $7,500 per year under the five-year trial program.
“We will learn something from this program,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a Democrat who joined Republican leaders in backing the experiment. She said it would give students academic options that only “well-to-do families who can afford private-school tuition have.”
As part of a $40 million deal, the district would receive an extra $13 million for its public schools, $13 million for its charter schools and $1 million for administrative costs.
That’s more expansive than the $10 million voucher plan approved by the House. The Senate never acted on its voucher proposal after Democrats forestalled a vote for days.
“We are outraged that the conferees decided to do this,” said Courtney Snowden, a lobbyist for the National PTA. She called the plan an “unaccountable, unproven voucher program that diverts precious dollars from an already cash-strapped school system.”
Under the voucher deal, priority would be given to students at schools identified as underachieving based on the No Child Left Behind law, according to congressional aides.
The U.S. education secretary and the district’s mayor would choose an independent entity to evaluate the program’s effectiveness, the aides said.
The inclusion of vouchers in the combination spending bill was not a surprise, as GOP congressional leaders and President Bush have been promoting school choice all year.