GOP House Speaker John Boehner and independent Sen. Joe Lieberman introduced legislation Wednesday to revive a school voucher program for District of Columbia students nearly two years after Congress began phasing it out.
In a statement Wednesday, Boehner said the D.C. program is a model that can work well in other cities and should be the starting point of any new bipartisan education reform legislation developed with President Barack Obama's administration.
"There's only one program in America where the federal government allows parents from lower-income families to choose the schools that are best for their children, and it's right here in D.C.," Boehner said. "If we're serious about bipartisan education reform, then this bipartisan education bill should be the starting point."
Democratic Washington Mayor Vincent Gray opposes the voucher program as an intrusion into local government. Through a spokeswoman, he said the city already has a popular public charter school system that provides parents a choice in education.
Boehner, referring to Obama's State of the Union address on making the nation more competitive globally, said vouchers make the U.S. education system more competitive.
On Tuesday night, Boehner hosted Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Catholic archbishop of Washington, at the speech, along with D.C. Catholic teachers and students who are receiving public funds to attend private schools through the program.
The group Americans United for Separation of Church and State blasted the legislation, saying it would increase the federal budget deficit by subsidizing religious schools.
The voucher program was created in 2004 as a five-year pilot program with support from then-Mayor Anthony Williams to give about 1,700 low-income students up to $7,500 annually as partial scholarships to cover private school tuition. Just over 1,000 students are still receiving the scholarships, but new students weren't accepted last year as part of the phase-out.
Boehner also helped create the original program, which started in D.C. because Congress has more control over the city than it does over states. The Republican Congress at the time saw it as a school reform tool designed to give parents a choice to leave poor-performing public schools. Families apply for the scholarships but they must meet income limits.
A three-year analysis released in 2009 by the Education Department found that D.C. students receiving vouchers made modest gains in reading but no measurable progress in math. At the time, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the results did not justify continuing the program. Advocates said the improved student achievement in reading was laudable.
The legislation introduced Wednesday would increase the scholarship to $8,000 annually for elementary students and $12,000 for high school students.
Those amounts fall short of the $32,000-plus tuition at elite private institutions, such as Sidwell Friends School, where Obama's daughters are enrolled. Catholic school tuition ranges from $5,200 to more than $15,000. Many private schools award their own financial aid.