The debate in the Senate over whether to provide tuition vouchers to a few of the students trapped in failing District of Columbia public schools has temporarily stalled because of the adamant opposition of liberal Senate Democrats led by Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. But Republicans are convinced the proposal will still become law this year.
These Democrats continue to oppose the program even though it has been endorsed by D.C.’s Democratic Mayor Anthony Williams and embraced by less ideological Democrats such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.
Three years ago, the National Education Association-whose members comprised the largest bloc of delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles-endorsed Al Gore for President. In July of that year, the teachers’ group also adopted a resolution condemning school vouchers in almost apocalyptic terms.
School choice, warned the NEA, has “the potential for racial, economic, and social segregation of children.” Having accepted the NEA’s endorsement, Gore promised he would “never support private school vouchers,” and, if elected, would appoint Supreme Court Justices who would interpret the Constitution to forbid school choice.
Many Senate Democrats, apparently, are still taking orders from the NEA. The D.C. proposal, a five-year pilot program, would allow only 2,000 lower-income D.C. students to take $7,500 tuition scholarships and redeem them at the private or religious schools of their choosing within the District. Motivating this proposal are the facts that D.C. spends $12,046 per pupil per year, more than any state, and yet on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests D.C. students score worse in math and reading than their contemporaries in any state.
In the Senate struggle, Democrats lacked the votes to pass an amendment to strip the voucher measure from the $8 billion appropriation bill for the District of Columbia. But Republicans were shy of the 60 votes needed to force a final vote on the bill.
A similar measure allowing school vouchers in the District already has passed the House.
Republican Senate sources vow that the voucher proposal will succeed-likely as part of an omnibus continuing resolution that Congress will be forced to pass if all the freestanding appropriations bills cannot be completed. Amy Call, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.), said, “We’ll put it in an omnibus and it will become law.”
House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R.-Mo.) said, “Mayor Williams met with our [Republican] Conference, along with [Democratic] Councilman [Kevin] Chavous and made a very strong pitch for passage of vouchers.” Blunt credited Williams with helping to woo House Members, ensuring passage of the measure in that chamber by one vote. Two weeks ago, Williams went on the Senate floor during the voucher debate to make his case as a guest of Sen. Feinstein (D.-Calif.).