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President Barack Obama reversed course on D.C. school vouchers Monday, opting to open up the program to more students in the coming school year and abandoning his proposal to end federal funding for the program in the short-term.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) announced the decision, saying they had persuaded the Obama administration to support a plan to provide $20 million to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.
According to Boehner spokesman Michael Steel, new students would be able to apply for the program, which would no longer limit enrollment to current students or cap the number of participants.
A statement from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, however, clarified that enrollment would actually be capped at 1,700 from 1,615, “to allow for a statistically valid evaluation of the program.”
Obama had sought to zero out the program for fiscal 2013, partly in deference to local officials who believed precious resources should go toward helping the larger public school system in D.C.
But Boehner and Lieberman have argued that regardless of how Obama and others might feel about the merits of the program, refusal to fully fund it would run afoul of the law. First established as a five-year pilot program in 2004 to allow students to attend private or parochial schools in the city, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program lapsed in 2009. It was reauthorized in the fiscal 2012 omnibus spending bill, which also stipulated that $60 million be given to the city to be equally divided among D.C. public schools, public charter schools and the voucher program.
“Thousands of families have taken advantage of this scholarship program to give their children an opportunity to succeed in life, and there’s strong evidence that it’s both effective and cost-effective,” Boehner said in a statement. “I’m pleased an agreement had been reached to expand the program, consistent with the law already on the books.”
The fight over the D.C. school voucher program has at times led to heated language. When Boehner sought to reauthorize the program in stand-alone legislation early in the 112th Congress, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said the people of the District of Columbia would not be treated as “lab rats” for Republican approaches to education reform.
The program allows low-income parents to send their children to private schools by providing federally funded vouchers worth up to $12,000 a year.
Norton, who is working with Lieberman to move legislation that would give D.C. control of its own budget, chose not to comment on Obama’s announcement Monday.
Democratic Mayor Vincent Gray’s spokesman, Pedro Ribeiro, however, did weigh in. “Our message has always been not about the program itself, but about District residents not being guinea pigs for these social experiments,” Ribiero told Roll Call. “What we’d really like is for Congress to allow the residents of the District of Columbia to decide what school programs they’d like to fund themselves.”
But even Senate Democrats, among the strongest allies of D.C. government and of the teachers unions that have opposed vouchers, have registered their dissent against Obama’s previous position on the program.