Politics & Policy

A Second Chance for Choice

John Boehner tries to revive the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Last month, Rep. John Boehner (R., Ohio) introduced H.R. 471, the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act. Besides the speaker’s imprimatur, H.R. 471 has another advantage: It has one Democratic co-sponsor in the House, Rep. Dan Lipinski (Ill.), and two in the Senate, Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) and Joe Lieberman (I., Conn.). 

The bill resuscitates the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a five-year pilot program that Congress created in 2004. In its original incarnation, the program offered vouchers worth up to $7,500 to low-income students in the district so they could attend private schools. Because the DC OSP garnered limited funding, it served only 3,300 students. But demand was high: Each scholarship attracted four applicants, necessitating a lottery.

And satisfaction was real: Parents whose children won vouchers were more likely to rate their schools favorably than those whose children didn’t receive them, according to the Department of Education’s final evaluation. Participants also were more likely to graduate: 91 percent of them completed high school, compared with 70 percent of applicants who didn’t win scholarships.

Nonetheless, opposition was fierce. In 2009, Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) slipped language into an omnibus spending bill to let the program expire. Current enrollees would receive vouchers until graduation, but no additional pupils could apply. Durbin shivered at the thought of unregulated schools. Students were attending “schools where somebody’s mom or somebody’s wife declared themselves [principals] and teachers and went in to teach without college degrees and received federal subsidies to do it,” he told the Washington Times.

Now, however, Boehner plans to revive the program by addressing these criticisms. H.R. 471 obliges all participating schools to hold certificates of occupancy from the district, make accreditation information available for parents, maintain adequate finances, and require teachers of core subjects to hold bachelor’s degrees or their equivalent. It also increases scholarships to $8,000 for elementary-school students and $12,000 for high schoolers.

Boehner’s compromises don’t fundamentally change the bill, Lindsay Burke, an education analyst for the Heritage Foundation, tells NRO. Most schools already have certificates of occupancy, and the stipulation that a teacher hold a bachelor’s or its equivalent gives foreign instructors plenty of flexibility.

A spokesman for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform says the bill is “very important” to the GOP. In fact, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R., S.C.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Health Care, District of Columbia, Census, and the National Archives, says he expects to hold hearings on it by the end of this month. And, as a token of the speaker’s approval, it is “very likely” the bill will be the only regular piece of legislation to bear Boehner’s sponsorship this session, a spokesman tells NRO. 

That said, the most important vote of confidence in the bill may be its three Democratic co-sponsors. Lipinski, for instance, “has been very involved in Catholic schools’ week and really understands why having this option for low-income families is hugely important,” says one education-reform expert. Although the expert sees little chance for further Democratic support, he believes “there is a sufficient margin [in the House] to move it through as is.”

In the Senate, however, he is less sanguine. “To be honest, I do not see a way we can get to 60,” he says. “So the way [forward] will be to attach it to another bill and put it through the appropriations process.”

Still, he believes there is actually more bipartisan support in the upper chamber. “Senator Lieberman and his staff have been working on this for several years,” he says. “Last year, the original co-sponsors of his bill included Dianne Feinstein and then-senator [Robert] Byrd. When it was voted on, it attracted the support of senators Mark Warner of Virginia and Bill Nelson of Florida. And we’re hopeful that Senator Manchin will be a supporter.”

Indeed, Lieberman lends strong support to the measure. In a statement to NRO, Lieberman says the voucher program “is not a Democratic, Republican, or independent program — it is not a liberal or conservative program — it is a program that puts children first. The Opportunity Scholarship Program works as evidenced by increased graduation rates, higher reading proficiency, and the overwhelming support of district families.” As a result, he is “optimistic that we can pass it this year.”

Lipinski agrees. “I see the SOAR Act — which also authorizes additional funding for D.C. public and private charter schools — as being very much in line with core Democratic-party goals and principles of fairness, which is why it already enjoys Democratic sponsorship,” he says in a statement to NRO. “I think we can all agree that a child shouldn’t have to attend schools that fail to meet reasonable standards just because she lives in a low-income neighborhood.”

Burke finds Feinstein’s sponsorship particularly encouraging. “One of [Feinstein’s] early concerns was whether or not the program had local support,” Burke says. “Seven out of thirteen members of the D.C. City Council are in favor of it. We know from polling that’s been done that seven out of ten people want to see it continued. There are all these indications of local support.”

But not of unanimity. D.C.’s delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.), vehemently opposes the program. She argues that the district’s local government has chosen charter schools as its form of school choice and that her constituents resent outside interference. “If they’re for vouchers, pass a national vouchers bill, don’t pass a bill picking on [us],” she tells NRO. “We resent being someone’s petri dish.”

In the end, however, Gowdy thinks Republicans have the most persuasive argument — one that might persuade enough Democrats to cross party lines. “What possible opposition could exist to a program that has demonstrable results and widespread support among participants, and doesn’t hurt the other sectors of education?” he asks. “I will let those who are opposed to it come and make their case.”

— Brian Bolduc is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute. 

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