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A Federal Funding Fight Over D.C. Vouchers

Scott hugs students from the Richard Wright Public Charter School in D.C. on Feb. 9. He wants more funding for school vouchers. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Republicans on Capitol Hill are trying to protect the D.C. school voucher system, a GOP pet program championed by Speaker John A. Boehner and others.  

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Republicans are gearing up to move forward on a bill reauthorizing vouchers in the nation's capital, an initiative known as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. They are concerned the White House has again signaled the demise of the federally funded private-school program in its fiscal 2016 budget request.  

And in the Senate, the attempt to secure continued funding has gained a bit of bipartisan support.  

“I very much believe in choices in education and I don’t believe that only wealthy children should be able to go to private school, so I’ve been a supporter for a long, long time,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the lone Democrat to sign onto a March 2 letter questioning President Barack Obama's decision to terminate future scholarship funding.  

The concern is that reduced funding would block new enrollees, and critics of the president's budget proposal note public schools in the District of Columbia are some of the worst in the nation, in spite of spending almost $30,000 per pupil.  

California’s senior senator told CQ Roll Call she was a key vote in 2004 in favor of establishing the program, which provides low-income students with up to $12,572 to pay for tuition, fees and public transportation to the school of their choice, including private and parochial institutions. "I’m for competition, for schools being able to spend the time that’s necessary with each child," Feinstein said.  

The president's budget includes $43.2 million to remain available until expended, a reduction from $45 million in fiscal 2015. The administration wants $3.2 million of the proposed figure to be used for an evaluation of the program.  

Questioned about the program's success during a March 4 House Appropriations subcommittee, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said a previous evaluation showed "mixed" results. Democrats have in the past tried to prohibit new scholarships, arguing the funds would be better used in the public education system.  

Mayor Muriel Bowser's position on the proposed cuts is unclear. Spokeswoman LaToya Foster said Bowser has been a supporter of vouchers in the District. When the voucher systems — referred to by supporters as opportunity scholarships — were first introduced, D.C.'s school system was in a very different place, Foster said. But the quality has "improved tremendously since then."  

Asked directly whether Bowser wants to see the program reauthorized to accept new students, Foster said she couldn't elaborate.  

"The mayor is taking all that into consideration at this time," she said. Foster also would not say whether the voucher program has come up during Bowser's visits to Capitol Hill .  

Congress may ask Bowser for a firmer position. A spokeswoman for Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said the committee will hold a hearing on the program. The committee does not support Obama's decision to "drastically underfund" the scholarships, and is concerned with "the persistent and systemic failings of many schools in the D.C. Public School system, especially those in traditionally low-income areas," said spokeswoman Melissa Subbotin.  

Appropriators in both chambers are expected to restore the reduced funds for new scholarships as they have done in the past, consistent with the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act put forth in 2011 by Boehner and then-Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn.  

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., has been spearheading the effort this year to secure funds for the scholarship program. As a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Scott has introduced legislation that proposes expanding student access and mandating excess carry-over funds be used to promote the program and support additional scholarships.  

The letter to Obama, circulated by Scott's office, states the scholarship program may be the only way for some D.C. children to lift themselves out of poverty, noting the enrollment wait list for D.C. public charter schools totals more than 22,000 applicants. The program received more than 3,600 applications for the 2014-2015 school year.

“Sadly, the Obama Administration is again attempting to kill the successful DC Opportunity Scholarship Program by underfunding the program and preventing additional students from receiving scholarships,” Scott spokesman Sean Conner wrote in an email. “You can’t run a quality program year after year on carryover funding that will clearly expire. Senator Scott firmly believes that instead of restricting access to the program for low-income families in our nation’s capital, the President and the Secretary of Education should be doing everything they can to support its expansion, including funding for new children to receive scholarships.”

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