WASHINGTON (ABP) — Republican leaders in the House and Senate have quietly slipped a measure into a federal appropriations bill that would create the first federally sponsored school-voucher program.
The proposal, which would create a publicly funded scholarship program for low-income students in the District of Columbia, has been added to a massive spending bill by a House-Senate conference committee. The catch-all package — with a price tag of $280 billion at last count — would fund vital government operations for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
Although conference reports are designed to hammer out differences between legislation passed by the House and Senate before both chambers give final approval, congressional leaders have wide latitude to insert extraneous measures into such spending bills.
This means the bill containing the voucher provision is unamendable and virtually certain to pass when it reaches the floor of the Senate, which Republican leaders hope will happen before Congress breaks for Thanksgiving.
The $13 million measure would provide per-pupil scholarships of up to $7,500 a year that low-income students in Washington could use to attend private schools, including religious schools. The bill would authorize a five-year pilot program. It also would provide $27 million in additional funding for traditional D.C. public schools as well as public charter schools in the District.
The voucher plan has not been brought to the Senate floor for consideration. The House narrowly passed a similar D.C. voucher plan — by a single-vote margin — in September. However, because of the controversy and a filibuster threat from Democratic voucher opponents, Republican leaders removed the measure from the D.C. appropriations bill that passed Nov. 18.
The inclusion of the measure in the omnibus spending package means voucher opponents have virtually no options for opposing it. Blocking the bill would risk a showdown that could ultimately lead to a shutdown of the federal government. Even simply voting against such a bill is difficult, because it contains funding for many lucrative home-district federal projects that lawmakers have worked hard to include.
“I think that it's pretty unfortunate that they're going to be attaching such a controversial amendment to a bill that will be tough for senators to vote against,” a Senate Democratic aide on education issues told ABP. The aide also said that, despite deep opposition to vouchers, a filibuster to block the final package is not likely.
Although the majority of elected officials in D.C. oppose the voucher proposal, it gained momentum earlier this year when Washington Mayor Anthony Williams (D) reversed his long opposition and threw his support behind the legislation. He was joined by the city's school board president and a key city council member.
A key legislator — Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) — threw her support behind the plan as well, despite a long record of past opposition to vouchers.
In a Nov. 19 statement, Feinstein hailed the provision's inclusion in the spending bill. “I believe that we will learn something from this program,” she said. “The prejudices about vouchers run deep and are filled with emotion. The question is, do children do better in different academic programs?”
Press reports have indicated that Feinstein received promises from Senate leaders that the provision would include language that prohibits schools participating in the program from engaging in religious discrimination against students. As of press time, Feinstein's office had not returned a reporter's calls requesting information on that aspect of the program.
Voucher opponents condemned the move. Holly Hollman, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, said the use of “parliamentary ploys to pass legislation is careless and utterly irresponsible.” Hollman's organization opposes government funding for religious schools, even though the Supreme Court ruled last year that voucher programs do not necessarily violate the Constitution's ban on government establishment of religion.
“Creative responses are needed to address the problems in our public schools, but subsidizing religious education with tax money is not one of them,” Hollman said.