Boehner to introduce D.C. voucher bill
House Speaker John Boehner will introduce a bill Wednesday that aims to revive a school voucher program in the District, nearly two years after Democratic opposition to the program led to its phase-out.
Boehner is set to unveil the bill one day after President Barack Obama is expected to call for greater political comity in his State of the Union address. Boehner is presenting the bill as an opportunity for bipartisanship.
"If the president is sincere about working together on education reform, we should start by saving this successful, bipartisan program that has helped so many underprivileged children get a quality education," Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement.
Several participants in and supporters of the voucher program will be seated in the House chamber for the address at Boehner's invitation, including Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, archbishop of Washington.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), a longtime voucher supporter, is expected to introduce a companion bill in the upper chamber and join Boehner at a Wednesday press event.
Democrats pushed successfully in the previous Congress to prevent re-authorization of the program, which provides up to $7,500 yearly toward tuition in private schools, including religious schools. As a compromise, legislators approved an Obama proposal to allow about 1,700 children then currently receiving vouchers to continue through high school. But no new students have were admitted to the program for the 2009 and 2010 school years.
The program, known officially as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, was first passed by Congress in 2004, with the support of some city leaders, including Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D).
Boehner, chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee at the time, co-authored the bill. A product of Catholic schools, Boehner has long taken a particular interest in the District education system. For several years, he and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) hosted an annual dinner that raised millions of dollars for D.C. Catholic schools.
In a video released in early January, Boehner proclaimed himself to be "all in for National School Choice Week," which is celebrated this week.
As speaker, Boehner is unlikely to sponsor many pieces of legislation himself. His willingness to do so in this case signals the personal importance of the D.C. voucher issue.
Lieberman, meanwhile, has also been a longtime advocate for the scholarship program. The Connecticut Democrat-turned-Independent, who announced last week he would not run for reelection in 2012, has also been a fervent supporter of D.C. voting rights but has broken with some local Democrats, including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, on the voucher issue.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) is an outspoken supporter of the city's popular charter schools, which are favored by many of the "school choice" advocates who support vouchers. But Gray has long opposed vouchers as an improper congressional foray into local affairs, and he reiterated that opposition Monday evening.
"These are decisions that should be made by the residents of the District of Columbia," Gray said in statement.
The voucher program stands to be an early point of friction between Gray and the new Republican majority in the House.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the newly installed chair of the House oversight subcommittee with jurisdiction over city affairs, said in a Monday interview that he believes the program deserves a second look, saying he was "very interested in hearing from ... the students and parents whether or not they thought the Opportunity Scholarship Program worked, whether or not they wanted to see it continued."
"if it wasn't continued, why wasn't it continued?" Gowdy said he wanted to know. "I think everybody on all sides would like that conversation."
Mike DeBonis and Ben Pershing
| January 24, 2011; 9:38 PM ET
Categories: Eleanor Holmes Norton, Vincent Gray
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