House narrowly passes D.C. voucher plan

Friday, May 1, 1998

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a controversial voucher program that would give needy students in the District of Columbia tax dollars to attend private secular or parochial schools.

By a narrow vote — 214-206 — the House yesterday passed the District of Columbia Student Scholarship Act. The Senate passed its version in November. The bill is now ready to be sent to President Clinton, who has promised he will veto it.

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.

Though voucher legislation has been considered by federal lawmakers, the D.C. act is the first voucher bill passed by Congress. No state voucher program that provides tax dollars for religious schools has been found constitutional by the courts.

At the moment, President Clinton is allied with religious-liberty groups such as the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State and People for the American Way, who say the bill would further weaken public education and violate the separation of church and state.

Joseph Conn, communications director for Americans United, said that if the bill became law, it would likely be found by courts to violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

“It is our belief that the Republican leadership in the House has been looking for a vote on the Scholarship Act to reassure their religious right constituency that they are paying attention to their agenda,” Conn said. “The problem with the act constitutionally is that it directly provides tax dollars for kids to go to religious schools. That is a direct endorsement of religion.”

No state has yet successfully administered a voucher program. Federal and state courts have consistently held that parochial school voucher programs run afoul of the First Amendment's separation of church and state principle by providing direct support for religion.

Two major programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee are clouded in uncertainty due to ongoing court challenges based on the First Amendment. Last year, the Ohio Court of Appeals ruled that the Cleveland program violated the separation of church and state by providing direct government funding to religious institutions. 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 for the same reason.

Supporters of voucher programs, however, argue that tax dollars do not go directly to religious schools, but instead are given to the parents who then choose were to send their children. Armey and other supporters of the D.C. act, moreover, argue that the District's public schools are in such poor shape that it is unfair to force needy children to attend them.

Richard Diamond, Armey's press secretary, said that funneling more money into the District's public schools is not the answer.

The Washington Post called the District's schools 'a well-financed failure,' ” Diamond said.

In February, the Post published a five-part series detailing the school district's troubles.

Diamond said Armey was working to persuade Clinton to sign the bill as well as seeking more support in Congress.

“The Senate has a better chance of overriding a presidential veto than the House,” he said. “Nonetheless, we are excited about the vote. This is the first victory I know of for school choice in the U.S. Congress.”