House Speaker Boehner, Sen. Lieberman Escalate Voucher Aid Campaign for Religious and Other Private Schools in D.C

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In his State of the Union address Jan. 25, President Barack Obama emphasized the importance of improving America's system of education.

"Maintaining our leadership in research and technology is crucial to America's success," he said. "But if we want to win the future - if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas - then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.... The question is whether all of us - as citizens, and as parents - are willing to do what's necessary to give every child a chance to succeed."

Obama touted his "Race to the Top" program and other education reform efforts targeting public schools.

House Speaker John Boehner was thinking about education that night, too. His priorities, however, were very different from Obama's. Boehner's special guests in the House Gallery included Cardinal Donald Wuerl, a group of teachers and students from the Consortium of Catholic Academies and an array of lobbyists from right-wing think tanks and advocacy groups that support voucher subsidies for religious and other private schools.

It was a not-so-subtle signal that the Ohio Republican intends to aggressively carry through on his promise to try to reauthorize and expand a controversial federally funded voucher program in the District of Columbia.

The next day, Boehner took action. He and U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) introduced bills in the House and Senate that would allocate $20 million annually in voucher assistance for religious and other private schools. Under their so-called Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR] Act, participating students would be eligible for up to $8,500 for tuition at elementary schools and $12,000 for tuition at high schools.

The proposal would revive and escalate the funding for a George W. Bush-era program that has been scheduled to shut down as soon as the currently participating students graduate.

The House bill, HR 471, had five original cosponsors: Reps. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), John Kline (R-Minn.) and Daniel Lipinski (R-Ill.). The Senate measure, S. 206, had four cosponsors: Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), John Ensign (R- Nev.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

At a press conference announcing the venture, Boehner and Lieberman hailed the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships Program as an escape route for inner-city children enrolled in poorly performing public schools and a model program for state legislatures around the country to adopt.

Said Boehner, "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. The D.C. program provides a model that I believe can work well in other communities around the nation - it should be expanded, not ended."

Lieberman was equally effusive.

"It's not about any particular program," Lieberman added. "It's about providing a multitude of options where the ultimate benefit is not for any existing system but for our children."

But, in fact, the program does disproportionately benefit one system: Washington, D.C.'s Catholic schools. According to the Catholic Standard, 879 of the 1,700 D.C. students enrolled in the voucher program in 2008 attended Catholic schools. (The U.S. Department of Education says approximately 80 percent of D.C. voucher students attended religious schools in 2009.)

Cardinal Wuerl expressed great gratitude for the Boehner voucher push. In a statement released Jan. 25, he thanked the House speaker for his attention to the issue.

"I am honored to be a guest of Speaker John Boehner at this evening's State of the Union address and to accompany some of the children who attend our schools and their parents," he said. "We are grateful to Speaker Boehner for his continuing support for these children that they may not only receive an excellent education but also may have hope for the future. …