Democrats had a big show of strength in their near party line vote for the “economic stimulus” package. The vote should put an end to the storyline that we have somehow entered a “post-partisan” era, but Democrats can take comfort in their 244-188 victory, a very comfortable margin, even while losing 11 members and gaining no Republican votes. Democrats simply don’t need to attract Republicans to get what they want done.
Yet the win came with a cost. When Speaker Pelosi embarrassingly tried to defend an appropriation in support of family planning services as somehow related to the economy, even a news media cheerleading for Democrats couldn’t hide the story line that so much of the bill being championed by the president as critical for our economy was old fashion pork and party payoffs. A new Rasmussen poll shows that support for the bill is on the decline, with just 42 percent of Americans favoring this first major initiative of President Obama and his Democratic Congress. Another item from the original bill could also prove troublesome for Democrats: an appropriation for $21 million to sod the National Mall. Recognizing this as an outrageous sum of money for the job, Republican House Leader John Boehner’s political action committee launched a petition to recruit volunteers to do the labor and leave the government just to pick up the tab for the materials. Like the funding for contraceptives, the sod project was quickly pulled from the bill.
This didn’t get much national attention, but it just might when Congress considers another funding item in Washington, D.C. Later this year, Congress must consider whether to provide about $13 million to fund the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. This program provides more than 1,700 students from low-income D.C. families with scholarships so they can attend a school of their parents’ choice.
Congressional Democrats–including D.C.’s own representative Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton—have long opposed the program, in spite of its popularity within the D.C. community. President Obama (who sends his children to private school, of course) has stated that he opposes school vouchers, which he argues amounts to abandoning the public school system.
But D.C. parents might themselves start to feel abandoned by the Democratic majority if Congress indeed decides that this program is just about the only government initiative worth eliminating during this Congressional spending orgy. After all, most parents who currently receive help through this program would have no choice but to send their children back to the D.C. public school system, which is one of the worst in the nation. In 2007, D.C.'s fourth- and eighth-grade students scored lower than kids from any of the 50 states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a national standardized test. D.C. schools are often violent and have one of the highest dropout rates in the country.
Democrats likely will try to assure D.C. parents that help is on the way, since Democrats are certain to pour more money into the nation’s public school system. After all, the recent “economic stimulus” contained well more than $100 billion in spending for education initiatives. Yet this should be of little comfort to D.C. families: research makes clear that more money doesn’t solve the real problems that plague public school systems. For decades, government has poured funding into public schools with little to show in terms of improved student outcomes. In fact, Washington, D.C. public schools are among the most well-funded in the nation, with higher per pupil spending (about $15,000 per year) than every state other than New Jersey, and that certainly hasn’t changed the system’s poor results.
Another provision in the “economic stimulus” legislation may suggest why Democrats are seeking to eliminate the D.C. voucher program. The bill specifically prohibits the new funds from being used to provide financial assistance to students to attend private elementary and secondary schools. In other words, Democrats are perfectly comfortable with the idea of spending $21 million for new grass for the Capital—or hundreds of millions for STD education or family planning services—but don’t want a penny to help parents who are struggling to give their kids a quality education and who have been failed by public schools.
Americans are right to be skeptical of the “economic stimulus” and likely going to become even more so as the rest of this Congress unfolds.