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Posted at 3:28 PM ET, 01/26/2011

Boehner, Lieberman offer new school voucher bill for low-income District students

By Ben Pershing

Updated, 3:20 p.m.:

In the clearest sign yet that the ground has shifted on Capitol Hill for District issues, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) joined Wednesday to announce an effort to "save and renew" a controversial school voucher program for D.C. students.

Boehner, Lieberman and a bipartisan group of prominent co-sponsors are introducing the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act, which would reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and provide additional funds for D.C. schools, with some conditions attached.

The scholarship program, created in 2004, provided low-income students from the District as much as $7,500 to attend private schools. With many Democrats in Congress opposed, the program has been allowed to expire. Current scholarship recipients have been allowed to remain in the program but no new awards have been handed out. The updated version unveiled Wednesday would provide as much as $8,000 annually per recipient for elementary school and $12,000 for high school.

Boehner, who served for six years as chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, helped author the original bill creating the program, and he has made clear this week that he remains a strong supporter.

"For years this program has worked well," Boehner said Wednesday, adding that proof of that assertion was on display at Tuesday night's State of the Union address, where students and parents who have benefited from the scholarship program were the speaker's guests.

"The D.C. program provides a model that I think can work well in other areas around the nation," Boehner said.

In addition to renewing the scholarship program, the SOAR Act would also, according to a summary of the measure distributed by Boehner's office, "authorize funding for DC public schools and DC public charter schools, as part of a three-sector approach to school reform. Finally, the SOAR Act would authorize funding to be equally divided between the DC OSP, the DC public schools and DC charter schools."

The introduction of the new measure drew praise from voucher supporters.

"I'm quite excited, quite optimistic," said Virginia Walden Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice and a guest of Boehner's on Tuesday night. "I think if we're ever going to get it done, it would be with this bill."

But Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) complained that Boehner was simply imposing his own will rather than attempting to reach a compromise with stakeholders. She said that if lawmakers want to encourage school choice, they should steer more federal money to the District's charter schools.

"Clearly our own public charter schools are where both the need and the demand are," Norton said.

As with other voucher programs across the country, the scholarships have long been opposed by teachers' unions, who fear that they will undermine and draw resources away from public schools. Lieberman said Wednesday that it was "wrong" to suggest that the scholarships would take money away from public schools, though opponents believe that the growth of voucher programs nationwide would inevitably do just that.

"To his credit, President Obama has challenged teachers' unions on issues like performance pay," Boehner said. "I hope he will challenge them on this."

The Washington Teachers Union had not responded to a request for comment as of this posting.

The SOAR Act is co-sponsored by Oversight and Government Reform committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), whose panel has jurisdiction over D.C. issues. His panel is expected to take the bill up soon, and Issa complained in a statement issued Wednesday that Democrats had ended the scholarships "without so much as a hearing to examine the program's effectiveness."

SOAR is expected to get to the floor quickly in the House, but the outlook in the Senate is less clear. In addition to Lieberman, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and John Ensign (R-Nev.) have also signed on.

The scholarship program has long divided District officials, and continues to do so. As Boehner noted Wednesday, the program was originally created with the strong support of then-Mayor Anthony Williams (D). Former mayor and current D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D) also backs the program, as does current Council Chairman Kwame Brown (D).

But Mayor Vincent Gray (D) is opposed to the scholarships, and Norton supported letting the program expire.

Advocates for the program say students who received the scholarships graduated at significantly higher rates and made strong academic gains compared with students who were not in the program. A 2009 Department of Education evaluation of the program gave it a mixed grade, finding that students improved in some areas but not in others. And a 2007 study by the Government Accountability Office found several flaws in the way the program was administered.

This post has been updated since it was first published.

By Ben Pershing  | January 26, 2011; 3:28 PM ET
Categories:  Ben Pershing, Congressional Oversight, Education  
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This program is a failure as reviewed by the US Department of Education. The people of the District have already voted against vouchers. If the House GOP is urging the reduction of federal spending, why the need to spend money on a failed program? This bill needs to be voted down and if passed vetoed.

Also, The Washington Post and other media, should get commentary from District residents opposed to this failed program, rather than quoting only supporters. Where is the fair and balanced reporting?

Robert Vinson Brannum

Posted by: robert158 | January 26, 2011 3:05 PM | Report abuse

i am so happy to read this! as a parent with a child in the program it has opened so many doors that would otherwise be unavailable to my daughter.....
i wish someone asked me about my daughters progress... my baby has excelled (sp) more than I could ever imagine!!!

Posted by: wendy_lewis2 | January 26, 2011 3:58 PM | Report abuse

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