WASHINGTON – The House narrowly approved private-school vouchers (search) for poor District of Columbia students Friday, recharging a debate that has implications beyond the nation's capital.
The $10 million House plan, approved 205-203, would mark the first time the federal government has put aside public money for students to get private schooling. The Senate will soon consider a similar voucher measure for the District's schools, and President Bush has championed the idea.
The House measure would let at least 1,300 students switch to a private school, and the number would grow — assuming some students get less than the maximum $7,500 a year. The vote came as an amendment to a bill outlining the capital city's budget, which the House is expected to approve next week.
The D.C. idea is significant nationally because any movement toward or away from vouchers is watched closely, said Todd Ziebarth, policy analyst for the nonprofit Education Commission of the States (search).
"To see the federal government put in place a voucher program for the D.C. public schools would push the momentum toward the proponents: 'Look, the federal government has done it for D.C. Shouldn't we do it for our urban schools as well'? " Ziebarth said.
Still, with states in their worst financial shape in decades, this is not a time when many state leaders will be inclined to start earmarking money for private schools, he said.
Four Democrats joined 201 Republicans to pass the amendment.
Supporters said students shouldn't be forced to stay in a city system notorious for academic struggles. Priority would go to students at schools publicly labeled as needing improvement.
"Wealthy people in America have school choice, but poor people don't, and many of those families in poor neighborhoods cannot afford a private option," said Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla. "And unfortunately, many of those types of situations are in the District of Columbia."
Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the plan would give hope to students who attend "the worst schools in America."
Critics said vouchers amount to an abandonment of public schools, and that the money would be better used to improve teachers and fix crumbling buildings. Eleanor Holmes Norton (search), the city's nonvoting delegate in Congress, said residents there don't want to be the subject of a national experiment.
"If you vote for vouchers, you will send a signal to every private school in the country, to every organization of private schools, that this is the time to bring pressure to get the same private-school deal that the District of Columbia got," she said.
Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., said: "It's D.C. today. It's Chicago tomorrow, St. Louis, New Orleans, Los Angeles next week, then it's all of America. The message...goes far beyond Washington, D.C."
An amendment by Norton to strike the $10 million choice provision died on a 203-203 vote.
Voucher supporters see hope in the federal push. The school-choice movement was already buoyed last year by a Supreme Court ruling deeming a Cleveland voucher plan constitutional.
Six states offer some form of vouchers.