Senate Voucher Advocates Make Last-Minute Pitch for Support

By Robert B. Bluey | July 7, 2008 | 8:04 PM EDT

Capitol Hill ( - Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) expects lawmakers to put the finishing touches on the District of Columbia's school choice plan Wednesday, barring an effort by Democrats to derail the $13 million voucher program.

Frist made a final pitch for vouchers Tuesday alongside D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Mike DeWine (R-Ohio). They touted the District's desire to expand the educational options available to parents while also strengthening the public school system.

Republicans have tied the voucher funding to the District's $5.6 billion appropriations bill. Besides earmarking $13 million for private school scholarships, the measure offers $13 million for D.C.'s public schools and $13 million for charter schools in the District.

Frist said the biggest challenge was bringing senators up to speed on the details of the voucher program, which differs from similar legislation in the House.

"I predict that through the education process, which we started several days ago and has been worked on locally for weeks and months, that we will have the votes," Frist told reporters. "I just find it hard to imagine that anybody in the United States Senate ... will stop this."

Shortly after the House of Representatives approved a similar plan by a 209-208 vote on Sept. 9, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) vowed to defeat the measure when it came to the Senate floor, either by filibustering or striking the voucher program from the District's appropriations bill.

Frist declined to speculate about the number of votes the measure had in the Senate, but it appears to have enough support to pass with 51 votes. Whether supporters are able to garner the 60 votes needed to invoke cloture, and therefore kill a filibuster, is less certain.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) declined to outline the Democrats' strategy, but he vowed to carry out a vigorous debate on the Senate floor.

"Public schools are required to live up to the standards of accountability set out in the law, but they get no money," Daschle said, referring to the No Child Left Behind Act. "Now, the D.C. private schools are going to get the money, but there is no requirement for accountability."

Feinstein, who had previously opposed vouchers, said accountability would be monitored closely under an amendment she plans to offer, requiring students in private schools to take the same achievement tests as their counterparts in public schools.

"I know there are some members on our side who feel very strongly against any kind of a voucher program, even a pilot such as this," Feinstein said. "But I'm hoping that won't cloud their vision as to what's necessary for the District."

Feinstein said she decided to support vouchers because the pilot program is limited to five years and money is earmarked for public and charter schools. It also didn't hurt that Williams, a Democrat, asked for her support. As a former mayor herself, she agreed.

"Education is a local matter," Feinstein said. "Where it comes to us is in the funding."

Voucher critics, however, said no changes or last-minute amendments would improve the bill. Iris J. Toyer, co-chairwoman of Parents United for D.C. Public Schools, said the District has more pressing needs, including decrepit public schools.

"There is nothing anyone can do to make [vouchers] palatable for public school parents in the District of Columbia," Toyer said. "Unfortunately, the mayor of Washington sees this as a way out to get rid of kids in the public schools who he won't have to pay for."

Toyer also chastised Williams for his lobbying efforts. She said that if the mayor spent more time talking with city residents, he would realize they are opposed to vouchers.

Williams addressed the criticism Tuesday, noting that he's helped institute several reforms and requested more money for public schools.

"I have fought with [the city council] to add $200 million to our schools; that's about a 42 percent increase to our schools," Williams said. "I am always there when it comes to supporting our schools when it comes to funding."

Even though Williams and Daschle disagree about vouchers, Williams made an appearance at the Senate Democrats' caucus meeting Tuesday to lobby any Democrats sitting on the fence. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who opposes vouchers, was also invited.

The Senate version of the bill offers slightly more money for the voucher program than its counterpart in the House. The $13 million allocated by the Senate would provide $7,500 in scholarship money for about 1,700 parents to send their children to private schools.

See Earlier Story:
House Vote on DC Vouchers Nears, Lobbying Intensifies
(Sept. 4, 2003)

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