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Posted at 2:54 PM ET, 11/23/2009

D.C. school vouchers: An opportunity for autonomy

By editors

By José E. Serrano

When I assumed the chairmanship of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees federal payments to the District, I announced that I was not interested in being a second mayor. Toward that end, I have worked to minimize Congress’s interference in D.C. affairs by steadily removing harmful, intrusive social policy directives from annual spending bills. But unfortunately, time and again one issue has dragged me into that unwanted “mayoral” role: school vouchers.

The controversial D.C. Opportunity Scholarships Program was designed and imposed by Congress in 2004 as a five-year pilot program to provide vouchers for children from low-income families to attend private schools. This issue has required more of my time and attention than perhaps any other issue involving the District. Because of it, each year my subcommittee gets drawn into debating local education policy in the city, a job that should be reserved for the mayor, the D.C. Council and the schools chancellor.

Supporters of the voucher program claim that because of my clear anti-voucher position, the program is “going to be ended” and “children will be sent back to their neighborhood schools.” This is inaccurate. In fact, in the House bill we agreed to support the Obama administration’s compromise, which continues to provide vouchers for children already in the program. This is as far as I can go. I do not support an expansion to include children not currently in the program.

As a matter of national policy, I do not support taking money out of public school systems to send children to private schools. The federal government does not mandate or fund private-school voucher programs anywhere else but the District; rather, where such programs exist, they are the result of state or local decisions. The same policy should be followed for the District. Meanwhile, I am committed to maintaining and perhaps increasing federal support for education in the District — but under the principle that federal funds must go only to public schools.

The congressional authorization for this pilot program has expired. If D.C. officials want to expand it, they should do so. Eventually, I would like the D.C. government to take over the existing federal voucher program as well, ensuring local control and accountability. But as for immediate expansion of the program, there is absolutely nothing stopping the District leaders from doing so. Advocates of this approach should lobby them rather than Congress.

When they created the voucher program, congressional Republicans were doing what they have always done with the District: foisting their social agenda on a group of citizens who have no real political recourse. I have fought against this approach time and again. Surely, we can agree that this program, however popular it is among the lucky few whose children got in, should not have been imposed on the District in the first place, just like other social riders inserted in D.C. spending bills over the years.

In some ways, I might be among the most qualified non-D.C. residents to appreciate the woes of the city’s residents. I was born in a U.S. territory (Puerto Rico) and now proudly represent the Bronx, one of the poorest communities in the United States. I understand the feeling of powerlessness in federal decision-making. I know the desperation of a parent having to send a child to a failing school. I am aware that our decisions here in Congress have the power to change lives.

I am of the opinion that D.C. citizens and leaders must take control of their city at every opportunity. I have told voucher advocates seeking my support to expand this program that D.C. residents cannot demand autonomy only when it is convenient. They must push their leaders to take control on all policies, for better or worse.

I accept the fact that Congress will have to continue to fund the children who are in the Opportunity Scholarship Program. I understand that, since Congress started them down this road, we must follow through on our obligation. But the ultimate fate of the program, other than for these children, is in the hands of D.C. leaders. Unlike some of my predecessors in Congress, I trust them to do what is right for D.C. citizens, especially children.

José E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) is chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on financial services and general government.

By editors  | November 23, 2009; 2:54 PM ET
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This is what referred to as, "Representation without Taxation" with DC wanting 'Statehood' yet, propped up with Federal dollars (.80 + .20 = $1). Even NYC is not worthy of being a State and DC should put down the pipe. An autonomous county in Maryland? Now we're reasonable.

Posted by: abuzznDC | November 24, 2009 6:02 PM | Report abuse

Serrano's own rhetoric shows the reason the voucher program should not just be continued but expanded. He refers to the students with vouchers as the "lucky few." So he is acknowledging that those left in D.C. public schools are the "unlucky many." He claims to understand the "desperation of a parent having to send a child to a failing school," thus recognizing that the D.C. schools are failures and the parents are desperate. As for the letting the D.C. schools have autonomy, if the people running the schools were competent then the schools wouldn't be in this mess. Michelle Rhee is doing heroic work but it is still going to take some to turn the schools around and in the meantime children's opportunities to learn are draining away.

Posted by: Yankeesfan1 | November 29, 2009 11:32 AM | Report abuse

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