April 2009 Church & State | Featured

Senator  Jim DeMint clearly has little use for the public school system.

In a speech to a conservative gathering in Washington, D.C., in late February, the South Carolina Republican called for privatization of education in the United States. Every student, he asserted, should be given $10,000 in public funds and allowed to enroll at any school they choose – public or private, secular or religious.

“A nation that raises its children in government schools,” he thundered, “cannot expect its people to stand for the principles of freedom.”

With extreme views such as that, it’s no surprise that DeMint joined with Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and a handful of other senators in a major push in March to continue federal funding for a school voucher program in the District of Columbia indefinitely.  

DeMint, Ensign and their allies waged an intense campaign on behalf of their amendment to the 2009 omnibus appropriations bill. Amendment 615 would have deleted language in H.R. 1105 that adds safeguards to the voucher program and requires Congress and the District Council to approve any continuation of it beyond the 2009-2010 school year.

By a 58-39 vote March 10, however, the Senate rejected the amendment. (See vote below.) The omnibus measure has already been approved by the House and was quickly signed by the president.

The Senate action drew praise from advocates of public schools and civil liberties.  

Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, noted that the federally funded voucher plan was foisted on the District of Columbia by private school ideologues in the Bush administration in 2004.

“D.C.’s voucher experiment, cooked up in the laboratories of the far right, has failed,” said Lynn. “The Senate did the responsible thing in taking the first steps toward ending this program.”

Voucher proponents used emotional, and sometimes ugly, tactics to push Amendment 615.

At a news conference March 5, DeMint excoriated D.C. public schools.

“Parents tell us, they know in many cases, in D.C., if they’re sending their kids off to the public schools the chances are very good they’re going to end up in a gang rather than graduating high school,” he said.   

The incendiary comment enraged many parents and officials in the District, who noted that public school children there graduate at a slightly higher rate than students in DeMint’s home state of South Carolina.  

On the Senate floor, voucher boosters turned to heart-tugging tactics.  

Ensign displayed large photos of some of the 1,700 students who have transferred to private schools using the $7,500 vouchers handed out through the program. He noted that two voucher students attend prestigious Sidwell Friends School alongside President Barack Obama’s two daughters.  

“Unlike the Obama girls,” he said, “they could not afford this school without the $7,500 they received from the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.”

The Nevada senator even directed a barb at U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), the lead sponsor of the proposed voucher restrictions, for sending his children to private schools.  

Concluded Ensign, “We need to put special interests aside and focus on the children from Washington, D.C., but especially these low-income children.”

But Durbin enthusiastically defended public schools and noted that the D.C. voucher program was intended as a five-year experiment, not an indefinitely funded plan. He insisted that the program needs additional safeguards and that it should not continue unless it is reauthorized by Congress and approved by the District Council.  

The Illinois senator also noted that Ensign’s rosy picture of the voucher program is very misleading. Two studies of the D.C. program and a report by the General Accounting Office (GAO) have raised troubling questions. The academic surveys indicate that voucher students perform at about the same level as public school students, and the GAO found serious deficiencies.  

The GAO report, Durbin recalled, revealed that many teachers in voucher-subsidized schools did not have bachelor’s degrees and some classes were held in buildings that had not passed Life Safety Code inspections.  

“We are not going to create new opportunities when we have D.C. voucher schools stuck in the basement of a home where the principal has no academic credentials and the teachers do not have college degrees,” Durbin said. “We are not going to create excellence in buildings which are dangerous for kids to be in.”

Durbin said he and his wife sent their children to Catholic schools as a matter of personal conviction. But he insisted that he has also been a determined supporter of public education. He concluded with a plea for greater assistance for the District’s public school system.  

“I am not about to give up on D.C. public schools,” he said. “I honestly believe the vast majority of kids are going to be in those public schools, and they deserve a decent education. As much as we can help them, we should.”

Durbin’s position was supported by an array of educational and civil liberties organizations.  

Americans United sent a letter to all 100 senators March 3 urging a no vote on Amendment 615.  

“In addition to raising constitutional and civil rights concerns, the D.C. voucher program has simply proven ineffective and thus should not be extended,” wrote AU Legislative Director Aaron Schuham and Assistant Legislative Director Maggie Garrett. “Furthermore, the amendment would remove basic and necessary accountability provisions that should be mandated if federal taxpayer money is provided to private schools.”

Although the Senate vote is an encouraging sign, experts say the battle over the D.C. voucher program is far from over.  

U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) has vowed to hold hearings on the scheme in upcoming months through his Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. He is an enthusiastic advocate of the program, and some of the senators who voted against Amendment 615 have indicated that they might change their votes in a future tally.

In addition, the Obama administration has sent mixed signals on the issue.  

In a statement issued after the Senate vote, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said, “The president has repeatedly said that school vouchers are not a long-term solution to our educational challenges, but in this instance believes that we should try to find a way to keep from disrupting the students currently enrolled in this program. He looks forward to working with Congress to find a solution.”

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan took a similar stance.

Americans United will be watching the situation closely.

“The public wants strong, well-funded public schools,” said AU’s Lynn. “Vouchers are a distraction from reaching that goal. All Amerians should let the president and their members of Congress know how they feel about this issue.”

Senate Vote On D.C. School Voucher Extension

On March 10, the U.S. Senate rejected Amendment 615 that would have extended indefinitely the federally funded District of Columbia school voucher program. The proposal failed by a 58-39 vote.


Sessions (R), Yea

Shelby (R), Yea  


Begich (D), Nay

Murkowski (R), Nay


Kyl (R), Yea  

McCain (R), Yea  


Lincoln (D), Nay

Pryor (D), Nay  


Boxer (D), Nay

Feinstein (D), Nay


Bennet (D), Nay

Udall (D), Nay


Dodd (D), Nay

Lieberman (I), Yea


Carper (D), Nay

Kaufman (D), Nay


Martinez (R), Yea

Nelson (D), Nay


Chambliss (R), Yea

Isakson (R), Yea


Akaka (D), Nay

Inouye (D), Nay


Crapo (R), Nay

Risch (R), Yea


Burris (D), Nay

Durbin (D), Nay


Bayh (D), Nay

Lugar (R), Yea


Grassley (R), Yea

Harkin (D), Nay


Brownback (R), Yea

Roberts (R), Yea


Bunning (R), Yea

McConnell (R), Yea


Landrieu (D), Nay

Vitter (R), Yea


Collins (R), Yea

Snowe (R), Nay


Cardin (D), Nay

Mikulski (D), Nay


Kennedy (D), Not Voting

Kerry (D), Nay


Levin (D), Nay

Stabenow (D), Nay


Klobuchar (D), Nay


Cochran (R), Yea

Wicker (R), Yea


Bond (R), Yea

McCaskill (D), Nay


Baucus (D), Nay

Tester (D), Nay


Johanns (R), Not Voting

Nelson (D), Nay


Ensign (R), Yea

Reid (D), Nay

New Hampshire

Gregg (R), Yea

Shaheen (D), Nay

New Jersey

Lautenberg (D), Nay

Menendez (D), Nay

New Mexico

Bingaman (D), Nay

Udall (D), Nay

New York

Gillibrand (D), Nay

Schumer (D), Nay

North Carolina

Burr (R), Yea

Hagan (D), Nay

North Dakota

Conrad (D), Nay

Dorgan (D), Nay


Brown (D), Nay

Voinovich (R), Yea


Coburn (R), Yea

Inhofe (R), Yea


Merkley (D), Nay

Wyden (D), Nay


Casey (D), Nay

Specter (R), Nay

Rhode Island

Reed (D), Nay

Whitehouse (D), Nay

South Carolina

DeMint (R), Yea

Graham (R), Yea

South Dakota

Johnson (D), Nay

Thune (R), Yea


Alexander (R), Yea  

Corker (R), Yea


Cornyn (R), Yea

Hutchison (R), Yea


Bennett (R), Yea

Hatch (R), Yea


Leahy (D), Nay

Sanders (I), Nay


Warner (D), Yea

Webb (D), Nay


Cantwell (D), Nay

Murray (D), Nay

West Virginia

Byrd (D), Yea

Rockefeller (D), Nay


Feingold (D), Nay

Kohl (D), Nay


Barrasso (R), Yea

Enzi (R), Yea