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HOUSE PASSES $10 MILLION DC VOUCHER PROGRAM: Voucher Opponents Criticize Vote Timing, Set Sights on Senate Debate

"We are not advocating a national voucher policy. We, as local leaders, are simply imploring Congress to embrace our efforts to help our long-neglected student population with every available tool. . . . "

The House passed a $10 million private school tuition grant program-vouchers-for Washington, D.C. students. The program is expected to benefit approximately 1,300 of 68,000 students in the school system. Voucher opponents took issue with the extremely close 209-208 vote and argued that several likely “no” voters were unable to be present because of the Democratic presidential debate in Baltimore that night. They have pinned their hopes on the bill’s defeat in the Senate.

The five-year program will provide scholarships of up to $7,500 for students who come from families with incomes at or below 185 percent of the poverty rate (approximately $34,000 for a family of four). Students who receive scholarships would be randomly selected with priority given to students who attend schools deemed “in need of improvement” according to No Child Left Behind.

The voucher program is included in the D.C. Appropriations bill and is part of a $40 million package of new funding for D.C. public schools and public charter schools. Supporters, such as the District’s Mayor Anthony Williams (D) and Peggy Cooper Cafritz, president of the D.C. Board of Education, argue that the program will not take any money from public or charter schools in Washington, D.C. They also say that because the program is included in the D.C. Appropriations bill, it will not divert any money from federal education programs that are funded by the Labor-HHS-Education spending bill.

In a letter to the Washington Post in support of the program, Mayor Williams implored Congress to view the issue as a local, not national, decision. “We are not advocating a national voucher policy. We, as local leaders, are simply imploring Congress to embrace our efforts to help our long-neglected student population with every available tool. . . . This is a welcome partnership between the District and Congress. The discussion should not be burdened with agendas and ideologies unrelated to the best interests of the schoolchildren in our city.”

The Senate bill, as approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee, includes $13 million for the voucher program. In committee, Sens. Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) crossed party lines to support the program while Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) was the only Republican who voted against it. The bill, not expected to reach the Senate floor for at least a week or two, will likely face a difficult passage. Opponents have several ways to try to defeat the bill, including a filibuster, which requires 60 votes to overcome. However, if the Republican leadership were to roll the D.C. appropriations bill into an omnibus spending package with one or two other appropriations bills, defeat of the voucher program would prove more difficult.

NCLB Transfer Options Are Left Behind: Few Students Seek Transfer

As Congress continues its debate on the DC School Choice program, students around the country are opting to stay in their neighborhood schools, even if they are poor-performing schools. Recent reports from Chicago and Rhode Island appear to support a general nationwide trend in which few students are opting to transfer from schools in need of improvement. As schools opened in the two states, school officials discovered that, of the handful of students who did transfer, most did so because of issues unrelated to school performance, such as location or child-care concerns.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, Chicago was required to establish a lottery for the 270,000 students who were eligible for transfers and to inform parents of this option. In the end, school officials received only 19,246 replies indicating a desire to enter the lottery. After the 1,097 lottery winners were selected, only 481 decided to take advantage of their ticket and transfer to a better-performing school.

School officials in Rhode Island found very similar results. In August, the Rhode Island Department of Education announced that 27 public schools were in need of improvement. Students attending these schools had an option to transfer to another school in the district. The reaction was, at best, lukewarm. According to The Providence Journal, only six of 375 families from Warwick, R.I., who were invited to a meeting on school choice actually came. Of those six, only two families signed up for a transfer.

The results across the state were no different. In Central Falls, 11 parents asked for a transfer. In Woonsocket, a total of four families from two elementary schools have taken advantage of the transfer options. In fact, according to one Rhode Island superintendent, even when families choose to move their children, academics rarely plays a role. “When you look at the reasons why parents want transfers, it’s because of child-care issues or because they live closer to one school than another,” Schools Superintendent Maureen Chevrette told The Providence Journal. “It’s very seldom because they like this school more than that one.”

“Most Rhode Island Parents Choose to Ignore School Choice”:

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