This vote was on an amendment by Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., that would have authorized $20 million for five years to provide vouchers for low-income students in the Washington, D.C. public school system to attend private schools. It also would authorize $20 million each for public and private school systems in the city. The amendment was offered to a bill that would reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration and enact several new programs, including stricter pilot training recordkeeping standards and penalties for airlines that keep passengers idling on the tarmac too long.
One important change to the program, which Lieberman himself acknowledged as controversial, would expand the program to allow new applicants to receive voucher money. It is currently limited to those already enrolled in the program.
“It would benefit schoolchildren in the District of Columbia, reauthorizing a program we created 7 years ago now that has worked: $20 million to the DC public schools, $20 million to charter schools, and $20 million to the Opportunity Scholarship Program,” Lieberman said. “The last part is the controversial part. But it should not be. As Senator Feinstein said in her remarks on this amendment, what is there in this amendment to be afraid of?”
President Obama has asked that it be ended. Generally speaking, liberals oppose these “voucher” programs, feeling that it deprives funding from the public school system.
Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, noted that in fact the program has never formally been authorized, it has only been funded year-to-year through the annual appropriations process.
“We had the Department of Education, not this one, the previous one, and this one, do studies of whether this was successful. After 3 years, no statistically significant achievement impacts were observed for students who came from the lowest performing schools—which was the target of the program—or for students who entered the program academically behind,” Harkin said.
He also noted that there are already more than 60 charter schools in Washington, D.C. “So there is a choice for them to go to charter schools which are public schools open to everyone and they do not discriminate,” Harkin said, referring to the fact that private and parochial schools are free to pick and choose who may attend, where public schools accept any student, generally speaking.
By a vote of 42-55, the amendment was rejected. All but one Republican present voted for the amendment. All but three Democrats present voted against the amendment. The end result is that the measure went forward without language that would have provided money for a program of private school vouchers for public school students in Washington, D.C., and allowed the program’s enrollment to be expanded.