House Passes DC Scholarship Renewal, Senate Up Next


GOP House members drove the passage of a bill to continue the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which is the sole federally funded, private school voucher program for students K-12, until 2021.

The Washington Post’s Lyndsey Layton writes the House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) was the author of the bill that would mandate some students with vouchers to take the same standardized tests in math and reading that are given to public school pupils in the District.

The bill passed with 240 Republicans voting for it, eight Republicans voting against it, and two Democrats voting “aye.” It will open the program to students from low-income families already in private schools and will require accreditation for participating private schools within six years.

“While it’s my name on the bill, the best champions for this program are some of the most fearless kids you’ve ever seen,” Boehner said, choking up on the House floor. “Those of us who work here, make a good living — we owe something to the kids in this town. Help these kids get over the mountain.”

The Obama administration and House Democrats are against the bill, along with the majority of the D.C. Council, which has pushed Congress to put federal monies into public schools rather than private schools.

1,442 students used vouchers during the 2014-2015 school year to attend 47 private schools in D.C., and 80% of these schools were had a religious affiliation. The bill allows for $60 million to be spent each year for the voucher program, public charter schools, and traditional public schools, in even parts.

Congressional Republicans developed the D.C. voucher program to exemplify the possibilities of school choice. The White House argues that current voucher holders should be permitted to finish their education, but no new vouchers should be made available.

Those who support the program point out that 90% of voucher students graduate from high school and 88% of the Class of 2015 enrolled in some variety of higher education. Parents have expressed satisfaction with the program.

Still, there is little data to show that the program results in significant academic gains for students.

Boehner is a former House Education Committee member and co-author of the No Child Left Behind legislation. He created the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program in 2003 with District public officials. In 2011, the initiative was renewed in spite of White House opposition.

The House Speaker is a Catholic who has invited students from D.C.’s Catholic schools to be present in the audience for the State of the Union address each year, writes Christina Marcos of The Hill.

Because of Democratic opposition to the bill, chances for it passing in the Senate are slim. D.C.’s non-voting representative Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) suggested an amendment to limit schools from having more than 50% enrollment of voucher students, which failed on a voice vote.

At this point, writes Maggie Severns of Politico, the best chance for voucher proponents is to “tuck the program into a larger, must-pass law — and there are plenty of those in the congressional pipeline, including bills to increase the debt limit and keep the government funded past Dec. 11.”

This may be the last hurrah for the outgoing Speaker, and the bill is very near and dear to his heart. There is no doubt he would like to see the legislation passed.

At this time in the District, just 25% of learners go to neighborhood schools. Most attend public charter schools or traditional public schools that they access through a citywide lottery.