Congress Could End Vouchers in D.C.

A bill could end the nation's only federally funded school choice voucher program.

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It's uncommon for the leader of a public school system to support a voucher program that diverts money from public schools to private schools. But the District of Columbia's schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, is not your typical public schools leader. She is the head of one of the worst-performing public school districts in the nation. And she supports vouchers if it means that children will attend better schools. That is exactly what school choice supporters say the Scholarships Opportunities program has done for children in Washington, D.C., since 2004. The program provides scholarships of up to $7,500 so that some 1,700 low-income, minority children in the city can attend private schools that are, by many accounts, better than the district's anemic schools. But now congressional Democrats could eliminate that option for D.C. families.

Last week, Rhee got word that federal funding for the city's voucher program might end by fall 2010 and that her public schools should prepare to re-enroll those students currently attending private schools on taxpayer money. Rhee was not thrilled with the news. "Part of my job is to make sure that all kids get a great education, and it doesn't matter whether that's in charter, parochial, or public schools," Rhee told the New York Times last week. She went on: "I don't think vouchers are going to solve all the ills of public education, but parents who are zoned to schools that are failing kids should have options to do better by their kids."

Vouchers are available for public school students in Arizona, Louisiana, Ohio, Utah, and Wisconsin. But only D.C.'s voucher program is directly financed by the federal government. In recent days, several major newspapers have published scathing editorials taking congressional Democrats to task for supporting an omnibus spending bill that could kill the program. Their reasons for cutting the program are not entirely clear. But many suspect that politics, rather than compelling evidence about the merits of the program, is driving the decision. (A Republican-controlled Congress set up the city's voucher system five years ago.) Deborah Parker, a D.C. mother whose children receive vouchers to attend Sidwell Friends, the elite private school that enrolls the Obamas' daughters, told the Washington Post that she's frightened of returning her kids to the public schools. If the Senate goes along with the House and approves the bill that could end vouchers in D.C., the newspaper's editorial said, "someone needs to tell Ms. Parker why a bunch of elected officials who can send their children to any school they choose are taking that option from her."

Andrew Rotherham, cofounder of the Education Sector, an independent research organization in D.C., offers some background on the controversy surrounding vouchers. He offers this prediction: "The coming fight over the D.C. voucher program seems destined to be the most interesting debate to date in terms of what education politics are really going to look like in the Obama era because that issue cuts across a host of political and jurisdictional lines."

What do you think? Should Congress allow eligible families in D.C. to send their kids to private school at taxpayers' expense?

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