By Sean Cavanagh
Congressional lawmakers have released a statement saying they have reached an agreement with the Obama administration to "fully implement" the District of Columbia's controversial school voucher program—but the president's team is describing the accord in much more limited terms.
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut Independent, on Monday said they had struck a deal with the U.S. Department of Education to ensure that there is no cap on enrollment in the program, and that new families can continue to apply for it.
Obama angered Republicans in Congress by proposing to cut off funding for the D.C. voucher program in fiscal 2013. The administration has argued that the program has enough funding to continue and serve new students, as current enrollees leave the program.
But U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in a statement released later Monday, did not appear to go nearly as far as the lawmakers did. Duncan said the adminstration is simply agreeing to allow the program's enrollment to grow from 1,615 to about 1,700 students for the coming year so that it can continue to be studied in a statistically valid way, as required by federal law.
"The President and I are committed to ensuring that the education of the children currently in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program is not disrupted," Duncan said in a statement. "Beyond that commitment, however, we remain convinced that our time and resources are best spent on reforming the public school system to benefit all students, and we look forward to working with Congress in a bipartisan manner to advance that goal."
As part of a federal budget deal reached in 2011, Congress and the administration provided support for the eight-year-old D.C. voucher program. But in his spending plan for next fiscal year, Obama proposed providing no money for the program—currently funded at $20 million, arguing that it still had sufficient funding to serve its current population, and make some new awards. (See page 1317 of this budget document for their reasoning.)
A spokesman for Boehner told Education Week that the agreement with the administration called for including additional funding for the program, but a department official said the administration is not changing its original budget request. (Any agreement on funding would presumably require action by Congress.)
While the president has supported the expansion of various forms or public school choice, such as charter schools, he opposes private school vouchers, in which taxpayer funds are given to families to cover the costs of private or religious schools. The issue is sharp source of division between Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who has called for allowing federal Title 1 and special education funds to be used for vouchers.
Romney has also specifically criticized Obama for proposing to cut off funding for the D.C. voucher program, saying the president has succumbed to political pressure from his supporters.
"While funneling federal dollars toward the unions in return for their generous support, President Obama has also withheld dollars from innovative programs that the unions oppose," Romney's recent education policy blueprint stated. "Consider, for example, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which gives low-income children increased choice in the form of access to private school."