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Education Reporter

D.C. Voucher Program Approved
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In a major victory for proponents of school vouchers, the Senate voted 65-28 on January 23 to establish an experimental voucher program in the District of Columbia costing $40 million annually for the next five years. The plan will allow at least 1,700 poor D.C. public-school students to receive as much as $7,500 toward the cost of private schooling.

The House of Representatives previously passed the bill by a narrow 209-208 vote as part of an omnibus spending package. President Bush has said he would sign it. President Clinton vetoed a similar D.C. voucher bill six years ago.

Education Secretary Rod Paige, who worked with D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams to win passage of the bill, called the Senate vote "a truly historic event." "School choice is one policy that will help create an educational system that makes no distinction between the poor and the privileged in terms of the quality of education received," he said.

Participation in the program is limited to children from households whose income is 185% of the poverty level or less, and priority would be given to students in schools identified as underachieving under the No Child Left Behind Act. The median per-student cost of private elementary schools in D.C. is $4,500 per year, according to a Cato Institute survey.

"This is the biggest education accomplishment in this city in 20 years," said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform in Washington. (washingtontimes.com, 1-23-04)

The unsung heroine of the voucher victory is Virginia Walden-Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, who learned how to fight while enduring racial taunts growing up in Arkansas public schools. Her youngest son benefited from a private voucher that turned his life around and inspired her to seek vouchers for more D.C. students.

Furious that Congressional opponents of vouchers send their own children to private schools but wont allow poor black children to do the same, she ran hard-hitting ads in the home states of Senators Mary Landrieu, Dick Durbin and Ted Kennedy, blasting them for standing in the way of racial justice. During the Senate floor debate, only four Senators were willing to speak out against the bill, and Sen. Landrieu abstained in the vote. (Wall Street Journal, 2-2-04)

Small-scale voucher programs already exist in several states, including Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida. Florida has launched three voucher programs for economically disadvantaged or disabled children since 1999. Of the initial group of 58 pupils from two failing publicschools in Pensacola, 34 are in Catholic schools, where 32 of the voucher pupils have progressed more than one grade level on a standardized test for each of the four years they have been in the program, according to Catholic school officials. (Associated Press, 12-22-03)

A Florida court ruling that spending public money on religious schools violates the Florida Constitution is on appeal. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that a voucher program in Ohio did not violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, thus clearing the way for more experimentation with school vouchers.

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