This was a vote on a resolution setting a time limit for debate and determining which amendments could be offered to legislation reinstituting a school voucher program in the District of Columbia that had been phased out in 2009. If passed, this particular procedural motion--known as the “previous question"--effectively ends debate and brings the pending legislation to an immediate vote. This school voucher program allowed low-income students in D.C. to receive subsidies for private school tuition. The measure had been enacted under Republican control of Congress during President George W. Bush’s administration in 2003. In 2009, the Democratic-controlled congress discontinued federal funding for the program. This vote took place in 2011, after Republicans had regained control of the House of Representatives.
Republicans generally supported school vouchers, contending that they provided low-income children with the opportunity to attend high-quality schools that they otherwise could not have afforded. Democrats generally opposed vouchers, arguing that using taxpayer funds for private schools drained money from the public school system.
In addition to funding school vouchers, the underlying bill also provided federal funds for D.C. public schools and charter schools. (Charter schools are publicly funded and do not charge tuition—but are not subject to all of the rules and regulations that govern traditional public schools.) Specifically, the measure provided $60 million per year for D.C. schools through 2016. Of the $60 million annual total, the bill provided $20 million for traditional public schools, $20 million for charter schools, and $20 million for school vouchers.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) urged support for the resolution and the underlying bill: “In 2003, an Opportunity Scholarship [school voucher program] was instituted, at the insistence of Congress. Again, there was a waiting list of people wanting the opportunity; disadvantaged kids who wanted the opportunity that this scholarship afforded them. In the appropriation bill for 2010, unfortunately, Congress intervened again in a negative way and cut out this Opportunity Scholarship program. There were a lot of upset students and parents who couldn't believe how special interest politics got in the way of their son's or daughter's dreams and was snatched from their very hands. Their opportunity to make what they believe were better educational choices was basically taken away from them.”
Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) argued: “…It's absurd…that we as elected officials from 50 states are executing a right to determine how schools are funded in a jurisdiction that doesn't even have a vote in this body [D.C.]. I'm a representative of part of one State, Colorado, and yet here I am in a position to make school funding decisions on behalf of Washington, D.C., students. We wouldn't do this to Colorado, Ohio, or any other state….This vote underscores the need for Washington, D.C., to control its own public school system as the state does.”
The House agreed to this resolution by a vote of 235-178. All 233 Republicans present and 2 Democrats voted “yea.” 178 Democrats voted “nay.” As a result, the House proceeded to formal floor debate on legislation reinstituting a school voucher program in the District of Columbia that had been phased out in 2009.