WASHINGTON The mayor of the nation's capital defended school vouchers for city children yesterday after a voucher plan passed the House of Representatives, and he urged opponents not to make it the focus of a larger partisan debate.
"Opponents are making this a test case for a national program," said District of Columbia Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who characterizes vouchers as an important component of what the city is doing with the D.C. Public Schools and a companion charter-school program. "Democrats can still have concerns about vouchers as a national issue, but give us a break in terms of what will work in D.C.," said Williams.
If approved by Congress, the District of Columbia voucher plan would be the first federally funded voucher program. A measure providing $10 million for private school vouchers passed 209-208 in the House on Sept. 9. It would provide up to $7,500 for up to 1,300 of the district's poorest children to attend private schools. About 68,000 children are now enrolled in the city's public schools.
The measure now moves to the Senate, where Democrats have threatened a filibuster to prevent it from coming to the floor.
Several states have begun programs to give parents expense vouchers to help pay tuition at private schools, including religious schools. Opponents contend that such payments constitute direct state aid to religion in violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
Williams, a lifelong Democrat, was "disheartened and disappointed" that most of his party's representatives voted against the final bill, which he believes is "in the best interest of the city's children."
The mayor said School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz and D.C. Councilman Kevin Chavous who chairs the committee with oversight of schools and libraries both support the voucher plan.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-DC, who represents the district's 573,000 residents, opposed the measure in the committee. But because she lacks a vote in the full House, Norton had no voice in final House action.
The voucher money is included in the District's annual appropriation which is primarily made up of locally raised funds. The House measure was sponsored by Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va.
The timing and close nature of the vote highlighted the politics of the voucher debate.
Republicans scrambled to get the measure passed in nearly party-line fashion, while opponents criticized GOP leaders for having the vote on the same night the Congressional Black Caucus held a Democratic presidential debate in Baltimore. Two House Democrats running for president, Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, missed the vote.