WASHINGTON (AP) — The House voted Wednesday to reauthorize a pet program of outgoing Speaker John Boehner: school vouchers for District of Columbia students.
The District is the only jurisdiction in the nation where students get federal funds to pay tuition at private and parochial schools.
In one of his final acts as speaker, Boehner introduced a bill that extends the program for another five years and increases funding for it to $20 million annually. It was approved on a mostly party-line vote. A bipartisan group of senators has introduced companion legislation.
Boehner attended Catholic schools and has spoken about how difficult it was for his parents to pay tuition. He said the vouchers have given thousands of children a path out of poverty and failing schools.
"This issue is personal to me," Boehner said, choking up briefly on the House floor. "Those of us who work here, make a good living, we owe something to the kids in this town. We owe these kids a chance, a fighting chance at success."
The White House opposes the program, arguing that the money should be spent on public schools instead of "a handful of students." Many Democratic local leaders see the vouchers as an intrusion on home rule in the nation's capital, noting that Congress has been unable to enact a national voucher program. However, Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser, herself a veteran of Catholic schools, has historically supported the program.
Both proponents and critics of the vouchers found ammunition in a 2010 Education Department study, which found that students in the program graduated at a higher rate than public-school students but didn't perform significantly better on standardized tests.
"The program has demonstrably failed," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who represents the District in Congress but cannot vote on the House floor.
More than 6,000 students have received scholarships through the program since 2004, and thousands more are on a waiting list. Students get scholarships of more than $12,000 annually for high school and $8,000 a year for middle school. Polls have shown widespread public support for the program.
The Obama administration has tried repeatedly to pull funding for the program, although the White House says students currently receiving vouchers should not have them revoked.
The bill also authorizes federal funding of $20 million annually for both the city's traditional public schools and its charter schools. Without the voucher program, its supporters say, that money would disappear.
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