Updated 2:30 p.m. | As the House Republican Conference continues to navigate an unpredictable leadership situation, outgoing Speaker John A. Boehner got one piece of good news Friday: his bill reauthorizing a D.C. school vouchers program moved forward.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee approved, on a party-line vote, a five-year reauthorization of the program Friday. Partisan divisions were on display during the markup. Roughly a dozen D.C. children dressed in their private school uniforms watched as lawmakers debated the faults and merits of their voucher program. A handful of the students hailed from Archbishop Carroll High School in Northeast D.C., where the committee held a field hearing on the program in May.
"This program is about real people," Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah said. "It’s about providing school choice and education improvement.”
Chaffetz's fellow Republicans echoed his argument that the program was effective, and that parents should be afforded more choice when it comes to their children's education.
Democrats countered that the program was not effective, money should be directed to public schools instead, and that reauthorizing the program violated principles of local governance. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., inserted a letter from the majority of the D.C. councilmembers into the record, who wrote that they strongly opposed reauthorizing the program.
"Yet this committee is rushing to consider a bill which was just introduced on Monday to reauthorize a program that does not expire until Sept. 30, 2016, so that Speaker John Boehner has a capstone to his political career," Norton said. "The D.C. voucher program is his pet project, not ours. Yet at the same time he has stood in the way of what D.C. residents repeatedly requested from Congress, from budget and legislative autonomy, to voting rights and statehood."
Chaffetz, on the other hand, thanked Boehner, who worked to establish the program in 2003 when he chaired the Education and the Workforce Committee, and reauthorize it in 2011.
"He has been a true champion," Chaffetz said in his opening statement, adding that he hoped the bill would next be considered on the House floor.
A similar bill was introduced Wednesday in the Senate.
A bipartisan group led by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., introduced a bill to reauthorize the program until 2025. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., also signed onto the bill.
Previously, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., had been the only Senate Democrat to support the program.
Booker’s office providede a statement Friday when asked why he signed onto the bill, and why he supports a D.C. vouchers program when he (and Feinstein) voted against a national vouchers system in July.
“America’s most valuable natural resource is the genius of our kids. Senator Booker believes that investing in educating our young people is essential if Americans are to be competitive in a global, knowledge-based economy," said Booker spokeswoman Monique Waters. "Students deserve to have access to high quality educational options and this legislation provides not only funding for scholarships, but also increased funding for DC Public Schools, which is distinctly different from proposals that could reduce resources for traditional public schools in low income communities. This will help ensure that students in our nation’s capital have access to quality education that prepares them to excel.”
— Sarah Chacko contributed to this report.
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