D.C. voucher bill nears House vote

Friday, April 10, 1998

Despite threats of a presidential veto and criticism by civil rights advocates, the U.S. House of Representatives is working to pass a bill that would use tax dollars to give poor students in the District of Columbia a chance to attend private schools.

The District of Columbia Student Scholarship Act of 1997 passed the Senate in November and is expected to receive a full House vote by the end of April.

Backed by Rep. Richard Armey, R-Texas, and Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Dan Coats, R-Ind., the bill would provide about 2,000 D.C. students with up to $3,200 each for K-12 scholarships at private schools in Maryland, Virginia or the District.

Supports of the voucher bill say that it would provide District parents a way to escape one of the most troubled public school systems in the country and that Congress should provide such an option to poor parents.

In February, The Washington Post published a five-part series detailing the school district's failure. The series noted that only 55 percent of all D.C. high school students who took the Scholastic Aptitude Test in 1996 attended public schools and at least 40 percent of D.C.'s students drop out or leave the school system before graduating. On Thursday the Post reported that the District's public school system is faced with a $62 million budget deficit which will force dismissals of dozens of teachers and a hiring freeze.

At the moment, President Clinton is allied with civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way, who say the bill would cripple public education and subvert the separation of church and state. Clinton has said he will veto the legislation. But according to Armey's press secretary, Richard Diamond, the 2/3 vote necessary to override a veto is not there.

“We are working to get the president to see that he should sign the bill,” Diamond said. “Is the president really going to veto the bill when faced with thousands of needy children in the District?”

At a press conference conducted by the People for the American Way last week, several African American ministers derided the bill.

“African American children, like all children, need strong public schools,” said Timothy McDonald, chairman of the African American Ministers Leadership Council. “Instead of diverting money to private schools, Congress should consider alternatives to make public schools stronger.”

Diamond said the D.C. schools are among the most well-funded public schools in the country and that “throwing money at the problems has not worked before.”

Competition will ultimately prove beneficial for the District's public schools, Diamond added. He pointed to a situation in New York where a philanthropist offered $2,000 scholarships to every child in Albany's worst-performing school. One-sixth of the parents jumped at the offer and moved their kids to private schools. The school board responded by firing the public school principal, hiring new teachers and providing better financial oversight.

The press secretary also said that voucher bill would not violate the separation of church and state because they are similar to student loans and the G.I. Bill where funds are spent by the recipients and not the government.

“The bill is designed to give the money to the parents and they are the ones making the decision as to what school their children will attend—not the government,” Diamond said.

People for the American Way's legal director, Elliot Mincberg, however, disagrees with Diamond's assertions.

“First from a legal perspective the analogy to student loans and the G.I. Bill is just plain wrong,” Mincberg said. “Every voucher plan passed has been declared unconstitutional by courts. The plan is an unconstitutional policy being forced upon the District by Congress. Just ask the representatives of the District who are saying that vouchers are the wrong solution–it will drain kids and money from the schools.”

At the moment no voucher program has been successfully administered. Federal and state courts have consistently held that such programs run afoul of the First Amendment's separation of church and state by providing direct government support for religion.

The fate of programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee are uncertain, due to ongoing court challenges based on the First Amendment. Last year, the Ohio Court of Appeals ruled that the Cleveland program violates the separation of church and state. That decision has now been appealed to the state's high court.

The Milwaukee program, which is similar to Cleveland's, has likewise been invalidated by a state court ruling that said it subverts the separation of church and state.

Voucher opponents also suggest that private schools will not do any better in providing education than the public schools. The opponents cite a recent report commissioned by the state of Ohio that shows students using the Cleveland voucher program are not achieving better test scores than similar students in public schools. The report found “no significant differences” in achievement in either reading, math or science between students using vouchers and a comparable sample from Cleveland's public schools.