WASHINGTON—The U.S. House of Representatives voted Wednesday to reinstate school vouchers for District of Columbia students, reviving the only program that uses federal tax dollars to subsidize private-school tuition.
The bill introduced by Republican House Speaker John Boehner would provide up to $12,000 a year for needy students to attend private schools of their choice.
It was approved 225-195, largely along party lines. Democrats opposed it as an inappropriate use of federal funds and an unwelcome intrusion into local affairs.
Boehner, who attended Roman Catholic schools, had tears in his eyes while describing how the program levels the playing field for families who otherwise would be forced to send their children to failing schools.
"There's no controversial idea here," Boehner said. "It's the American way."
The voucher program was created in 2004 with the support of the district's Democratic leadership to provide $7,500 a year to about 1,700 students. Congress agreed to begin phasing it out in 2009.
The new bill would increase the annual subsidy to $8,000 for elementary and middle school tuition and $12,000 for high school. It would cost $300 million over five years, with $100 million going to the voucher program and the rest to D.C.'s public and charter schools.
The bill now heads to the Senate, where prospects are uncertain. Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., is a sponsor, and will all but certainly succeed in advancing it out of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which he chairs. But to pass the full Senate it will need support from Democrats, a handful of whom have favored D.C. school vouchers in the past.
The Obama administration opposes the bill but has not threatened to veto it, suggesting a willingness to compromise.
In its statement of opposition, the administration cited an independent study conducted for the Department of Education, which found no conclusive evidence that vouchers enhanced student achievement.
But the study fueled both sides of the debate. It concluded that students in the program had a significantly higher chance of graduating from high school, along with showing modest gains in reading. Its lead author, Patrick J. Wolf, told a Senate committee last month that the program was good for students.
The return of the D.C. vouchers comes amid a GOP push for expanded vouchers in several states. Indiana's Republican leadership wants to create the nation's broadest voucher program, offering help with private school tuition to even middle-class families.
Most voucher programs are limited to low-income students, those with disabilities or those who attend failing schools. About 1 percent of the nation's 50 million K-12 students participate in voucher programs offered either by states, municipalities or through public-private partnerships.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents D.C. in Congress but does not vote on the House floor, led spirited opposition. She introduced an amendment that would direct all the funds to D.C.'s public and charter schools. Nearly half of D.C. public school students attend charter schools.
"Home rule means nothing if the District of Columbia can still be a dumping ground for every pet idea and pet project of the majority," Norton said.
She accused voucher proponents of bullying D.C. because they lacked the "nerve" to introduce a national voucher bill. Voters have consistently rejected vouchers in referendums.
In a statement, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State accused House Republicans of hypocrisy for approving vouchers while proposing billions of dollars in domestic spending cuts. Several Democrats pointed out a GOP pledge to accompany every new spending measure with a corresponding cut, which they said the voucher bill violates.
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray opposes the bill, but some D.C. officials support it, including Council Chairman Kwame Brown, who said low-income parents benefit from additional school choices.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said there was no reason to block a program that parents overwhelmingly favor. He noted that the cost of educating D.C. students was among the highest in the nation and that by many measures, D.C. schools remain among the nation's worst.
"They have a right to fail, and they are failing," Issa said. "But Congress has a right to at least intervene."