Specter Opposes School Choice in District of Columbia

Republican Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) says he opposes a measure that would allow a limited experimental school-choice program in the District of Columbia because he opposes giving federal money to institutions that discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion.

Even as local leaders in the District are jumping on the school choice bandwagon, Specter’s opposition to the D.C. school choice measure in the Senate, coupled with the opposition of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D.-La.), could kill the proposal. In 1997, both Specter and Landrieu voted for a similar proposal. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D.-Calif.), however, is flirting with flip-flopping the other way.

“I regretted that vote ever since,” Specter told HUMAN EVENTS of his 1997 vote. “I was concerned about the educational situation in the District of Columbia. I have a concern about the church-state issue and I know that the courts have ruled on it in a number of directions. I disagree with sending federal money to private institutions whose hiring can be discriminatory on the basis of religion.”

Told that Catholic schools in D.C. require only principals and theology teachers to be Catholic, he replied, “I have a problem with the theology courses. I do have great sympathy for what people want to accomplish here. I favor more charter schools.”

Feinstein raised a similar concern in a July 22 op-ed in the Washington Post. “Before I vote to fund these efforts, however, I want to be clear that the proposal passes constitutional muster, particularly as it relates to the separation of church and state,” she wrote. The U.S. Supreme Court has approved school-choice programs that include religious schools.

Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of D.C., a supporter of the Senate version of D.C. school choice legislation, said, “We’re not going to compromise on religious beliefs and Catholic education. That’s what we offer.” She noted that the G.I. bill has long funneled money to religious colleges that discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring.

Asked if the G.I. bill and Pell grants were “technically unconstitutional,” Specter said, “I wouldn’t want to decide the constitutionality of that standing on one foot.” He said that college students “can handle it better” and that those programs were “well-institutionalized at this point.”

The Specter and Landrieu defections forced the Senate Appropriations Committee to suspend a vote on the D.C. appropriations bill on July 17 because an amendment offered by Sen. Dick Durbin (D.-Ill.) to strip the D.C. school choice language from the bill was about to pass, to the surprise of committee staff. A Republican Senate staffer said Republican supporters of D.C. school choice thought they had the votes of Landrieu and Feinstein, but Landrieu flip-flopped at the last minute and Feinstein asked for more time to consider her vote. As of July 23, Sen. Judd Gregg (R.-N.H.), the chief Senate sponsor of D.C. school choice, said he did not know how Feinstein would vote.

“She says she’s for a scholarship program, but she hasn’t committed to vote for it,” said Gregg. He said that if Durbin’s amendment wins, Republicans would then have to bring the measure up on the Senate floor as an amendment, which Democrats could easily filibuster. If school choice remains in the bill, Democrats would have to filibuster the entire D.C. appropriations bill.

Gregg explained why it was vital for the Senate to pass its own version of the D.C. school choice program. “The Senate bill has both the language and the money,” he said. In order to win the support of local D.C. leaders, including Mayor Anthony Williams, school board president Peggy Cooper Cafritz, and City Council Education Committee Chairman Kevin Chavous, said Gregg, the Senate bill included $40 million in new education money for the District. This money is divided into three equal parts, one for scholarships for private school tuition, one for charter schools, and one for regular public schools.

The scholarships will total $7,500 per pupil for families with incomes 185% of poverty level or below.

Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R.-Tex.), longtime proponent of D.C. school choice, said Senate leaders should force Democrats to do a real filibuster, complete with long floor speeches, if they want to stop D.C. choice. “They should make it clear who’s stopping this,” he said in an interview.