Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) on the DC School Voucher Program

Posted on March 5, 2009

I wish to discuss the DC voucher program, officially the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program. This is a program that was established in 2004 to provide low-income families with scholarships to attend private schools in the District of Columbia. The legislation we are debating, unfortunately, makes it harder for that program to continue. The fiscal year 2009 omnibus legislation includes language that would end the scholarship program in September 2010, and it says we could not continue it by appropriation, which is unusual. It would also add the requirement that the DC City Council would have to approve whatever we did. That is a very unwise situation, I believe. 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. He said that to the Associated Press. I am reading from that article where it says that Secretary Duncan opposes vouchers. But he says essentially that Washington is a special case, and kids already in private schools on the public dime should be allowed to continue. To quote him directly, he said that "I don't think it makes sense to take kids out of a school where they're happy and safe and satisfied and learning.... I think those kids need to stay in their school." 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. I look forward to working with him. I am an original cosponsor of an amendment that Senators Ensign, Lieberman, Gregg, Voinovich, Kyl, DeMint, Brownback, and Cornyn have introduced that would solve this problem, that would remove the language from the omnibus bill that would make it harder for the DC Voucher Program to continue. I think we should also take note that DC Mayor Adrian Fenty and Chancellor Michelle Rhee, both of whom are acting courageously to try to improve the schools in the District, favor keeping the program. The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Wall Street Journal editorial pages have all voiced support of this program since this omnibus language was introduced in the House. The DC program is being singled out. I understand this may cause some problem with some House Members who would rather see us not amend the bill that came to us, but that is our job. This is the Senate. That is the House of Representatives. If, in a great big bill that spends $410 billion, we see some things that need to be improved, we ought to have a chance to improve them. In this case, there is broad agreement with the President's Education Secretary and many others that the DC kids need this and deserve this. There are 1,700 children currently attending private schools in DC using these opportunity scholarships of up to $7,500 a year. I make this point to call attention to the DC voucher program and the importance of making certain we have a chance to amend the omnibus bill -- the bill before us -- so we do not make it harder for the DC voucher program to continue. If that means we have to go on into next week in order to have a sufficient number of amendments, then we should do that. I appreciate the fact that the majority leader has adopted this year, as he should, the practice that the Senate is a place that is distinguished primarily by virtually unlimited debate and virtually unlimited amendments and then we vote. So a premature conclusion to this bill before we have a chance to improve it, such as keeping the DC voucher program, I think would be unwise. I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record the Associated Press article, the Washington Post editorial, the Chicago Tribune editorial, and the Wall Street Journal editorial. I thank the Senator from Illinois, and I look forward to working with him on helping the District of Columbia, including the mayor and the superintendent in the District who would like for this to continue. The question I have is: Why is it necessary for this legislation to insist that the program end in September of 2010 and that we add the provision the city council would have to approve it if it is continued by the Congress? Usually, when we have education programs whose authorization runs out, we continue them for a while as we go through the analysis the Senator talked about, such as the Higher Education Act which took us 6 years or the Head Start Act which took us 3 or 4 years or No Child Left Behind or so many others. Why is it necessary that we even address the ending of this program in this legislation?