WASHINGTON -- Congress took a step Friday toward turning the nation's capital city into the home of the first federally supported school voucher plan, an idea with implications across the country.
The House narrowly endorsed private-school vouchers for poor District of Columbia students Friday, a plan likely to win final approval when the city's budget comes to a vote next week. The Senate, too, will soon consider a plan to let district students attend private school at public expense.
The last time proponents got this far, in 1997, the voucher proposal stalled in the Senate after a veto threat from then-President Clinton. This time, proponents say the idea may have enough support in the Senate, and the White House isn't an obstacle: President Bush backs school choice.
If Congress adopts vouchers for one of the nation's most troubled districts, it could influence the choices of state leaders and further energize those on both sides of the issue.
Six states offer some form of vouchers, but voters in other states have soundly rejected them.
"Sometimes vouchers don't get traction because they're not in places anyone pays attention to. But for Washington, D.C., to house a program of choices, that could have tremendous traction," said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform. "We're closer than we've ever been."
But to opponents, who say vouchers strip money from public schools, the fight isn't close to over.
House Democrats say they believe the voucher vote could be overturned when the budget bill comes up for a vote next Tuesday. Democrats also say the close vote -- 205 to 203 -- signals the plan faces big trouble in the Senate.
Meanwhile, the lobbying among parents, teachers, unions and education groups is intensifying.
"When you've got the White House and the leadership of both houses of Congress pushing for it, it's definitely in play," said Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers. "And we are fighting it."
Since the Supreme Court deemed a Cleveland voucher case constitutional last year, only one state, Colorado, has added a voucher plan.
With states in their worst financial shape in decades, now is not a time when their leaders are inclined to earmark money for private school choice, said Todd Ziebarth, policy analyst for the nonprofit Education Commission of the States.
Still, he said, to see the federal government put in place a voucher program for the D.C. public schools would push the momentum toward the proponents."
Bush and other Republicans dropped vouchers from consideration as part of a compromise version of the 2001 law that overhauled public education. The law does allow students in consistently underperforming school to transfer to another public school.
The current $10 million House measure would let at least 1,300 students switch to private schools, and the number would grow -- assuming some students receive less than the maximum $7,500 a year. Vouchers would not guarantee students admission to the schools of their choice.
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."
Surveys of 60 private schools in the district found that 38 charge tuition of $7,500 or less, said Nina Rees, a deputy undersecretary at the Education Department.
Four Democrats joined 201 Republicans to pass the amendment.
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, 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.
The House bill is H.R. 2765.
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