An overlooked group of winners from Tuesday’s landslide election is low-income children living in Washington, D.C. Speaker Boehner is likely to make reviving the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program a priority in the next Congress, setting the stage for an interesting confrontation with President Obama.
To most Americans, John Boehner may be best known for his tan and golf game — a Washington Republican straight from central casting. But anyone who has followed Boehner closely over the years knows that Boehner is also a committed education reformer with a soft heart for low-income kids.
Since the 1990s, Boehner has championed policies to expand school choice options for kids trapped in low-performing schools. As the chairman of the Education Committee in 2004, he supported the Bush administration’s successful effort to create a pilot school voucher program in Washington, D.C. He also successfully pressed for school vouchers in the emergency federal aid package to help the many kids who were displaced by the Gulf Coast hurricanes in 2005.
Beyond his work as a legislator, Boehner has been a tireless advocate for inner-city parochial schools. For years, Boehner has co-sponsored annual charity events with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (and other Democratic leaders), raising millions to help struggling parochial schools in Washington, D.C. The events also have provided a preview into the Republican’s softer side (which the country saw first-hand Tuesday night). He’s known for his tendency to choke up when talking about the need to give poor children a chance to attend better schools, and presides over these charity events with a box of tissues close at hand.
After President Obama’s election, Boehner led the Republican effort in Congress to save the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, which was helping thousands of low-income children attend private schools in the nation’s capital. But Democrats and the Obama administration followed the teachers union’s orders — killing the D.C. voucher program in 2009. Reviving this symbolic program will now be a priority for conservatives.
When Speaker Boehner takes the gavel, House Republicans should push for an expanded D.C. voucher program in the annual federal appropriations package for the District of Columbia. This could set the stage for a fascinating showdown with President Obama. Would the president obey the National Education Association’s wishes and veto a program that would let poor kids attend private schools in the District, like his daughters do? Or would the president (a former scholarship recipient himself) let the measure pass to help thousands of kids? If he chooses the latter path, he would also provide political cover to the growing number of Democrats who now support school vouchers.
This is just one of many interesting debates to look forward to in 2011 and beyond in Speaker Boehner’s House.