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Duncan Enters D.C. Voucher Dust-Up

From Education Week Assistant Editor Erik Robelen:

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stepped into the political fray over the ever-contentious Washington, D.C., voucher program this week, when he indicated that while he is against vouchers, he would oppose any move to disrupt the schooling of low-income students already in the federal program.

That stance would appear to part company with some leading Democrats in Congress who, in the fiscal 2009 budget now working its way toward passage, have embraced an approach that many analysts believe would effectively end the program after the 2009-10 school year for all students.

First, to Secretary Duncan's own words, courtesy of a statement we received from the U.S. Department of Education after seeing reports from the Associated Press and the Washington Post:

“The President and I oppose vouchers. Vouchers are not the answer to school improvement in the District of Columbia or anywhere else. … However, students currently enrolled in private schools with the help of the DC voucher program should be allowed to remain where they are. I don’t think it makes sense to take kids out of school where they’re happy and safe and satisfied and learning. I think those kids need to stay in their schools.”

The statement from Secretary Duncan, however, did not explicitly offer a stance on whether the D.C. program should be extended.

And his statement shouldn't be taken as reflecting the position of President Obama, since Duncan hasn't talked to the president about it, said John McGrath, a Department spokesman.

Language in the omnibus spending bill passed in the House on Feb. 25 says that the federal program would end after the 2009-10 school year unless reauthorized by Congress. And most analysts say it would be a cold day in, well, you know the place, before the Democratic-controlled Congress would agree to extend the program.

Nonbinding report language accompanying the House and Senate versions of the fiscal 2009 budget bill said funding for the scholarship program “shall be used for currently-enrolled participants rather than new applicants.” And in what may be an especially telling signal about students now getting vouchers, it calls on the chancellor of the D.C. schools, Michelle Rhee, to “promptly take steps to minimize potential disruption and ensure smooth transition for any students seeking enrollment in the public school system as a result of any changes made to the private scholarship program affecting periods after school year 2009-10.”

This week, the Senate is considering that same omnibus budget bill, and it contains the very same provision that could spell the end of the D.C. program. A group of Republican lawmakers, lead by Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, plus Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Democratic Independent from Connecticut, are pushing an amendment that would strike out the language.

One of the amendment's supporters, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., read aloud during today's floor debate from Duncan's quote in the Associated Press.

"The U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, said yesterday that poor children getting vouchers to attend private schools in the District of Columbia should be allowed to stay there," Alexander said. "I think Secretary Duncan is right. I also think -- and I said this at his hearing -- that Secretary Duncan is the best of the distinguished appointments President Obama has made. He can be a real help to the children in this country." (Read Alexander's full statement here).

Even if the language does remain in the bill, that might not mean the end for the voucher program. Supporters are hoping to find another way to keep it going, and there are plenty of budget bills this year that could serve as the vehicle. And Lieberman, who heads up the committee that oversees the District of Columbia, is planning to hold hearings later this year on whether or not to reauthorize the D.C. program.

Check out Andy Rotherham's take on the dispute over at Eduwonk. And over at Flypaper, Mike Petrilli gives his view, then puts Duncan's comments through the reform-o-meter treatment.

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