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D.C. Voucher Program at Center of Fiscal Fight (Again)

As U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan begins defending the president's fiscal 2016 budget request before congressional committees this week, a bipartisan group of senators are putting the heat on the administration's proposal to reduce funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship.

The voucher program, which provides low-income students with up to $12,000 for use at the school of their choice, including private and parochial schools, is no stranger to testy funding battles.

Democrats, including Duncan, have shirked the program in the past for its limited reach and have argued its resources could be better spent improving the public education system. The Obama administration has tried for years to sunset the program, and the president's fiscal 2013 budget request zeroed out funding for the program, though the proposal was never carried out.

The fiscal 2016 budget request includes $43.2 million, down from $45 million last year, and $3.2 million of that must be used to carry out an evaluation of the program. In addition, the proposal specifically states that the money will be made available until it's all used up, an attempt to sunset the program once again and block new enrollees.

The program, which serves less than a couple thousand students, has been a pet project of Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, and has garnered a smattering of bipartisan support in the Senate.

This year's defenders include Republican Senators Tim Scott of South Carolina, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, and James Lankford of Oklahoma, as well as Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., who wrote to the president urging him to support full funding of the program.

"Public schools in the District of Columbia are some of the worst in the nation," they wrote. "Because the enrollment wait list for D.C. Public Charter Schools totals more than 22,000 applicants, disadvantaged Washington students have limited options in the district's public schools."

You can read the full letter here.

Duncan will be on hand Wednesday defending the budget request before the education appropriations subcommittee in the House, where he's sure to face questions about funding for the district's voucher program.

Look for him to fire back at lawmakers using data from a recent report from the Institute of Education Sciences that found a number of school vouchers go unused from the voucher program, with some of the most disadvantaged students using the program at lower rates than others.

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