After quite a bit of bad news on school vouchers on the state level of late, we can finally report a positive development thanks to a U.S. Senate Committee: A federal voucher ploy has been defeated!

Yesterday, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee was considering amendments to S. 1094, the “Strengthening America’s Schools Act,” which would reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  

Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C) introduced an amendment that would have allowed states to turn their Title I funds into giant voucher programs. It would have permitted any child whose income threshold qualifies his or her public school to receive Title I funds to take the allotment and use it toward tuition at religious and other private schools.  

In 2009-2010, 56,000 public schools received Title I funds on behalf of 21 million children, according to the U.S. Department of Education. It is not known exactly how much taxpayer money the Paul/Scott amendment would have cost, but the entire program received over $14 billion in fiscal 2012, according to the Washington, D.C.-based New America Foundation.   

Passage of this amendment, which was backed by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the ranking HELP Committee Republican, could have dealt a serious blow to public education given the amount of money and students involved.

Billions of public dollars could have been diverted to religious schools that are allowed to indoctrinate and discriminate, all while being free of the standards to which public schools are accountable.  

Fortunately HELP Committee Chair Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) saw through the voucher scheme, as did all the other Democrats on the committee. Two Republicans, Sens. Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), also voted against the ploy, which failed 8-14.

Unfortunately this is probably not the end for federal voucher proposals, given that Alexander told The New York Times  last week that he and Paul would introduce a similar amendment to the one that failed once S. 1094 comes up for a Senate floor vote.

There is also a House of Representatives committee markup next week on their version of the ESEA bill, and we may see vouchers introduced then or when the bill reaches the House floor.

Given that, we will continue to monitor this issue. With so many states working to expand existing voucher programs, any sort of federal vouchers would be a tremendous blow to public education nationwide – not to mention the First Amendment.  

P.S. Although the latest voucher scheme was killed, troubling issues are pending in the U.S. Congress. In the House of Representatives, a battle over religion in the military is underway. An amendment offered by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would allow sectarian symbols to be included at official military memorials, even if the memorials are intended to represent personnel with many different perspectives about religion. An NDAA amendment proposed by Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) would require the House and Senate Armed Services Committees to be informed every time there is a meeting between Department of Defense officials and civilians regarding creation or enforcement of military “religious liberty” rules. Stay tuned for updates on these badly misguided measures.