This vote was on an amendment by John Ensign, R-Nev., that would have deleted a provision in the underlying bill that would eliminate funds for Washington, DC's school voucher program, unless it is reauthorized by Congress and approved by the local DC government. Ensign’s amendment was offered to the bill that funds most domestic agencies in fiscal 2009.
The idea behind school vouchers, often championed by conservatives, is to give families a choice about where they send their children to school. In Washington, D.C., where public schools are underperforming and sometimes dangerous, underprivileged children can qualify for a $7,500 voucher that is applied toward the cost of tuition at a private school or charter school. Ensign said currently 1,700 children from lower income families are able to attend a private school due to the program, which Congress enacted about five years ago. The underlying bill would eliminate the program after the 2009-2010 school year.
"It is a civil right to get a good education. So we came up with a plan a few years ago that took up to 2,000 poor children in the metro DC area and sent them to a school of their parents’ choice. Washington, DC, spends more than any school District in America per student. The District of Columbia spends over $15,000 per student per year—three times as much as we spend in my home State of Nevada. Yet the public schools are failing here in Washington. So we decided to design a program to see if we can help some of those kids escape the failing public schools in Washington. We thought: if it works as a pilot project, maybe we can expand it to other places," Ensign said.
Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the problem with these types of programs is that private schools often don't have to meet the same basic mandates as a public school, including the educational level of their teachers, their building safety codes, curriculum and more. And the voucher program does not require that the voucher money be spent at schools that meet minimum public school standards in those areas either, he said. Additionally, Durbin said the government of Washington, D.C. should be allowed to decide whether they even want it to continue. He said these questions should be answered through the normal committee process, not with an amendment to a bill on the Senate floor.
"We said those two things are required: Reauthorize the program, have the DC City Council approve the program, and then we can consider going forward. Now, the committee that considers this reauthorization is not a hostile and angry committee. It is chaired by Senator Joe Lieberman from Connecticut, who has expressed his support for the DC voucher program. So it isn’t as if I am sending it to a committee that is going to deep six it and forget it. He is going to have a hearing about the future of the DC voucher schools. Senator Ensign, who comes to the floor and argues we should not ask the questions, we should not demand reauthorization, we should not ask the DC City Council whether they want the program to continue, is also a member of that committee. So he will have his chance under the bill that is before us to make this evaluation," Durbin said.
By a vote of 39-58, the amendment was rejected. All but four Republicans present voted for the amendment. All but two Democrats present voted against the amendment. The end result is that an amendment that would have ensured Washington, DC's school voucher program to continue past the 2009-2010 school year, was defeated.