Vouchers for D.C. Could Spur Wider Trend

NEWYou can now listen to Fox News articles!

D.C. students are one step closer to attending private schools with federal funds as a result of Friday's passage of a House bill backed by Washington’s Democratic mayor and school board president.

In a close vote, the House of Representatives approved an amendment to the $6.3 billion 2004 D.C. appropriations bill that will provide as much as $7,500 to at least 1,300 students for school vouchers. The 205-203 vote included only four House Democrats in favor of the amendment.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the measure Thursday by a party-line 16 to 12 vote, though Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a longtime voucher opponent, joined Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., in crossing over and supporting the provision.

Senate Democrats hope to kill the measure on the Senate floor with a filibuster.

If passed, the five-year pilot program would go into effect this school year.  Children whose parents earn less than 185 percent of the poverty level  — $34,040 for a family of four — would be eligible to enter into a lottery to receive voucher money.

The Department of Education (search) had earlier backed off Bush’s campaign goal of a nationwide voucher program and instead has accepted moving forward with the limited pilot program — at least for now. If successful, the Education Department may try to broaden voucher efforts.

“One of the key features of this pilot proposal is a rigorous evaluation of the program that hopefully will answer a lot of questions that critics have had. Depending on the results of the evaluation, we will be able to determine whether this is a program we can tackle to scale,” Undersecretary of Innovation and Improvement Nina Shokraii Rees told Foxnews.com.

Opponents and supporters of vouchers know the D.C. example will set a bar for a much larger debate, and many have voiced their positions on the pilot.

“I can’t think of a better place to have such a program given how much D.C. students are struggling,” said Heritage Foundation education expert Krista Kafer.

“We have great faith in the American people that they know a scam and a scheme when they see it,” said Nancy Keenan, education policy director for the People for the American Way (search).

“We think those resources that would go into the program should go into the school fund. It’s very important to us at every opportunity to stress that taxpayer resources are best spent in a public system that benefits everyone,” said Anjetta McQueen, spokeswoman for the National Education Association (search), the teachers union that has traditionally opposed voucher programs.

The District of Columbia is deeply divided on the issue. Voucher supporters include D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (search); Kevin P. Chavous, a member of the D.C. Council and chairman of its education committee; and Peggy Cooper Cafritz, president of the D.C. Board of Education, all of whom are Democrats.

However, a majority of the D.C. Council and the district's nonvoting Democratic delegate in Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton (search), have come out against the proposal.

"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," Norton 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," said Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., another voucher opponent.

But not everyone is fearful that a voucher victory in D.C. would have nationwide implications.

“I don’t know if it’s going to catch on fire. It does give some incentive to those who are trying to advance vouchers across the country, especially because these are federal dollars,” Keenan said.

Even if the voucher program is a success, Rees said that's no guarantee the program will be expanded nationwide.

“Each state and district has its own unique needs. We don’t necessarily think that what will work in the District of Columbia will work in a city like Oakland or New York/New Jersey,” she said.