Magazine article Church & State

School Voucher Avalanche: House Speaker Boehner, Right-Wing Allies Begin National Crusade for Taxpayer Subsidies of Religious and Other Private Schools

Magazine article Church & State

School Voucher Avalanche: House Speaker Boehner, Right-Wing Allies Begin National Crusade for Taxpayer Subsidies of Religious and Other Private Schools

Article excerpt

After the Republican Party made historic gains in the November elections, U.S. Rep. John Boehner (Rohio), soon to be House speaker, was much in demand in Washington, D.C.

It was telling, then, how Boehner chose to spend his time. On Nov. 15, he opted to use some of it meeting in the U.S. Capitol with school voucher activists who want federal funding for religious and other private schools in the District of Columbia.

Later, Boehner issued a statement on his blog backhandedly blasting public school teachers and administrators as a "special interest" and calling on Congress to reauthorize a controversial piece of legislation that grants vouchers for tuition at Washington, D.C, private schools.

"Education reform opponents now have an important choice to make: will they continue to stand with their special interest allies, or will they join us in helping to ensure more of Washington, D.C.'s most vulnerable students can obtain a quality education?" read the statement.

Boehner is now speaker of the House of Representatives, and it ap -pears that he and his right-wing allies are determined to revive the D.C. voucher scheme. Prodded by the reenergized voucher lobby and well-heeled corporate interests that loathe all public services, the new Congress could pursue any number of bills designed to shift tax funding from public schools to private education. Legislatures in many states are also being targeted.

The D.C. plan looks to be ground zero for this new drive. Pitched as a five-year "experiment," the program was pushed through a divided Congress in 2004. When it expired in 2009, President Barack Obama agreed to allow currently participating students to continue receiving vouchers until they graduate, but no new students were to be accepted.

Formally known as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the voucher program allocated $14 million to provide tuition vouchers pegged at up to $7,500 apiece. Although limited to Washington, D.C., the program has great symbolic value for voucher boosters, who point to the plan in Congress' back yard as evidence of the need for "school choice" in other places.

Six years after the plan went into effect, it's clear that ideology has triumphed over data. Extending vouchers to students in troubled D.C. neighborhoods, voucher advocates claimed, would boost student achievement and lead to educational innovations.

In fact, studies of the plan have shown that it hasn't lived up to the hype. A final study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education found that voucher students were doing no better at math and reading than those who did not participate.

The plan has served mainly to prop up financially ailing Roman Catholic schools in Washington. The vast majority of students taking part are in religious schools. (Not all are Catholic. Some of the schools are Protestant, and there are even a few Muslim academies.)

The plan is not popular among D.C. residents. In November, upstart mayoral candidate Vincent Gray, who opposed vouchers during the campaign, handily defeated incumbent Adrian Fenty, a voucher advocate.

This isn't surprising; D.C. residents have never backed vouchers. A voucher-like referendum on the city's ballot in 1981 was crushed 89 percent to 11 percent, and a 2002 poll found that more than 75 percent of D.C. voters opposed vouchers, including 85 percent of African-American voters.

None of these facts has deterred voucher enthusiasts. The fight long ago became one of ideology, not results. Confronted with data like this, voucher boosters simply point to other surveys showing that parents are happy with the program - as if parental happiness is an equal indicator with student test scores and achievement.

Boehner was one of the original House cosponsors of the D.C. voucher scheme in 2004. As he pushes to reauthorize it in 2011, he's likely to have plenty of allies in the new Congress. …

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