Updated 5:31 p.m. | Speaker John A. Boehner is poised to end his speakership the way he started it, by introducing a measure to reauthorize the District of Columbia school voucher program.
On Monday, the Ohio Republican introduced the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act to reauthorize the vouchers, also known as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, for five years. The program was the first bill Boehner introduced after he became speaker of the House in the 112th Congress. “There is only one program in America where the federal government allows parents to choose the best schools for their kids, it is right here in Washington, DC, and it is working,” Boehner said in a statement provided first to CQ Roll Call. “This program gets the kinds of results parents dream of for their kids.”
“It is a model for how we can break the status quo that deprives too many students of a great education,” Boehner continued. “This program was established with bipartisan support, and I am proud that we have bipartisan support for its renewal.”
The bill is only the fifth piece of legislation Boehner has introduced in the 114th Congress — three were procedural measures — which signifies his personal stake in the reauthorization.
As chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, Boehner co-sponsored the original 2003 legislation that established a pilot voucher program, which was folded into an appropriations package . After the program expired in 2009 amid opposition from President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats, Boehner worked with then-Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn., to re-establish the program through the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results, or SOAR, Act, in 2011.
Funding for the program is authorized through fiscal 2016, but the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has already signaled it will promptly consider the legislation, given Boehner’s impending exit. Committee members were notified on Oct. 2 that the committee would be marking up a bill pertaining to the voucher system this week. The committee was originally expected to mark up the bill on Wednesday, one day before the House Republican Conference selects its nominee for speaker. But on Monday evening, the committee rescheduled the markup for Friday at 10 a.m.
The bill will likely face partisan opposition. Only one Democrat in the House, Rep. Daniel Lipinski of Illinois, sided with Republicans to pass the SOAR Act in March 2011. The Oversight committee’s ranking Democrat and the District’s non-voting representative remain staunchly opposed to the program.
Boehner’s press release listed Lipinski as an original co-sponsor of the speaker’s bill, along with a handful of other Republicans including Oversight Chairman (and speaker candidate) Jason Chaffetz of Utah, and House Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline of Minnesota.
Partisan divisions over the program were evident at a May hearing on the program, which took place at a Catholic high school in northeast D.C. Democrats, including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., argued that federal funds would be more beneficial if directed at the District’s public schools, and accused Republicans of violating D.C.’s independence by imposing a program on the District.
“The Speaker is insisting on his choice – private schools – not ours – public charter schools – as the alternative to the District’s public schools,” Norton said in a statement Monday to CQ Roll Call. “At the same time, Republicans in the House and Senate have just explicitly rejected funding for a national, unaccountable voucher program, like the one in D.C., in their recently-passed Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization. Republicans acted on what their constituents wanted. D.C. wants the same local control over local affairs.”
But Republicans argue the program has proven results. In its program summary for the 2014-15 school year, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program noted a 90 percent high school graduation rate for participants, and that 88 percent of students in the program enrolled in a two- or four-year college or university.
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