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House Approves Legislation for Vouchers in Nation’s Capital

House Approves Legislation for Vouchers in Nation’s Capital Senate to act on the measure in late JanuaryThe U.S. House of Representatives last month gave final approval to legislation for taxpayer-funded vouchers for students in the District of Columbia. The legislation, backed by President Bush, will allow students to attend private and parochial schools. The Senate is not expected to act on the measure until late January.
The school choice initiative passed by the House is limited to low-income students in Washington, D.C. Scholarships would be available only to children from households whose income is 185 percent of the poverty line or less. Priority would be given to students in schools identified as underachieving under the No Child Left Behind Act.
Voting 242-176, the House approved the $328 million spending bill that includes private-school tuition aid for at least 1,700 students.
“Giving low-income parents a choice of where to send their children to school is really a matter of social justice,” said Dr. Roderick Paige, U.S. Secretary of Education, following the legislation’s passage. “A child’s educational circumstances should not be limited by a parent’s income, skin color, dialect or zip code. It’s just not fair to use the power of government to chain a child to a school that is not serving him or her well.”
Groups such as the National Education Association (NEA) oppose the voucher legislation, saying, “Research clearly demonstrates that vouchers have little effect on improving student achievement. Vouchers, which offer no real ‘choice’ for the overwhelming majority of students, also go against the will of the D.C. electorate.”
The proposal, however, approved as a part of the final FY2004 spending measure, includes a total of $40 million for D.C. parents, students and schools. Out of the $40 million:
• $13 million is provided for the D.C. school choice scholarship program, along with an additional $1 million for administrative expenses.
• $13 million is provided directly to the D.C. public schools for teacher training, teacher recruitment, and improving student achievement through supplemental educational services and public school choice. (This is in addition to the large increases the D.C. public schools have already been guaranteed under appropriations for the No Child Left Behind Act, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and other federal programs.)
• $13 million is provided for charter schools in the District of Columbia, to support existing charter schools and create five new charter schools.
Under the D.C. school choice program that the legislation would establish, low-income students and families could have access to up to $7,500 annually to cover tuition, fees, and any transportation expenses to attend a private elementary or high school in the District of Columbia. Other features:
• The legislation makes clear that participating schools cannot discriminate against students. Participating schools would be prohibited from taking a student’s religion into account in admitting students. A participating school may not discriminate against participating students or student applicants on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion or sex. Schools must accept participating students on a first-come, first-serve basis. Religious schools can continue to take religion into account in hiring decisions, as in many other programs that allow faith-based organizations to use federal funds to help individuals.
• Accountability will be required to ensure results for students. The secretary of Education and the mayor of the District of Columbia would jointly select an independent entity to evaluate the program and monitor its effectiveness.
The bipartisan measure was originally offered by Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va.; Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner, R-Ohio; and D.C. Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J. In addition to President Bush, Democrat D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams supports the measure as well.

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