School vouchers for D.C. parents passes U.S. House


A bill to continue a defunct school voucher program in Washington, D.C., passed the U.S. House on Wednesday afternoon by a largely party-line vote. Reps. Michele Bachmann, Chip Cravaack, John Kline and Erik Paulsen voted for the measure while Reps. Keith Ellison, Betty McCollum, Collin Peterson and Tim Walz voted against the bill. The controversial program has been criticized as ineffective and essentially a tool to funnel taxpayer money to religious schools. President Obama stated on Tuesday that he opposes the measure.

Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act, a bill sponsored by Kline, allows low-income parents in D.C. to receive $7,500 in federal funds to pay for private schooling. A pilot version of the program was instituted during the Bush administration and expired in 2009. Subsequent studies of student performance has shown no increase in student achievement.

A report by the U.S. Department of Education, released in June 2010, found, “There is no conclusive evidence that the [program] affected student achievement. On average, after at least four years students who were offered (or used) scholarships had reading and math test scores that were statistically similar to those who were not offered scholarships.”

However, the program is popular with Republicans and religious conservatives. In Minnesota, state GOP leaders are attempting to create the same program with a provision in K-12 budget bills.

On passage of the federal program, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty praised House Speaker John Boehner, who had pressed for the program.

“No child should be forced to go to a failing public school, yet that’s just what President Obama did when he sided with the teachers’ unions and ended this popular program,” Pawlenty said in a statement. “These scholarships have a proven record of success of empowering parents of underprivileged students in our nation’s capitol to choose the schools that are the best fit for their children. Today’s vote is a victory for school reformers across America.”

But not all are hailing it as a victory.

“We’ve already tried vouchers in the nation’s capital and we know that the program has shown no improvement in student performance, lacks accountability, hurts public schools and subsidizes religious indoctrination with taxpayer funds,” wrote Sandhya Bathija of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “It’s been clear that this isn’t about helping D.C.’s kids, but about a political ideology that opposes public education and church-state separation… Taxpayers should never be forced to support religion; that violates the fundamental right of conscience. Eighty percent of students in the D.C. program used vouchers to attend religious schools that integrate doctrine throughout their curriculum.”

President Obama released a statement on Tuesday urging a ‘no’ vote on the measure.

The Administration opposes the creation or expansion of private school voucher programs that are authorized by this bill. The Federal Government should focus its attention and available resources on improving the quality of public schools for all students. Private school vouchers are not an effective way to improve student achievement. The Administration strongly opposes expanding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and opening it to new students. Rigorous evaluation over several years demonstrates that the D.C. program has not yielded improved student achievement by its scholarship recipients compared to other students in D.C. While the President’s FY 2012 Budget requests funding to improve D.C. public schools and expand high-quality public charter schools, the Administration opposes targeting resources to help a small number of individuals attend private schools rather than creating access to great public schools for every child.