Over fierce Democratic opposition, the House on Wednesday approved a bill to reestablish a school-choice voucher system for Washington, D.C., residents.
The vote came a day after the White House said it opposed the program but stopped short of threatening to veto the legislation.
Restoring the D.C. voucher system was a top priority for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who sponsored the bill. Boehner fought back tears in defending the measure on the House floor, as he recalled D.C. parents who were grateful for educational choice.
“All they did was ask us to have a chance to have the same kind of education that kids down the street were getting,” he said. “There’s no controversial idea here. It’s the American way.”
Democrats opposed the bill, arguing that the program failed to lift educational performance and that the federal government should focus on improving all schools, rather than a program that only has $100 million to spend over the next five years on a small percentage of students.
Some members, including Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), noted that Republicans have proposed slashing millions of dollars in education spending as part of H.R. 1, but seem to favor funds for charter schools.
“This matter is nothing more than a shallow attempt to once again appease the right wing of the Republican Party,” he charged.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) was by far the most vocal opponent, and several times argued that the Republican House was seeking to “impose” an education policy on Washington.
“If you want to help us, have the courtesy, have the good grace to ask us how we want to be helped,” she said. Near the end of the debate, she said D.C. residents need to be consulted on the program as “free and equal citizens, not as second-class citizens, not as children, and certainly not as the colonial subjects of the Congress of the United States.”
Debate turned tense after Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) charged Democrats with being afraid to empower parents to make educational choices over the objections of the teachers unions. “We’re talking about power,” he said. “The power should go to the parent.”
Walsh refused to yield to Norton, and when it was her turn to speak, she addressed Walsh as “the gentleman who didn’t have the nerve to yield to me.” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said he would not seek to take down her words because time was short.
By a 185-237 vote, the House rejected the only amendment considered to the bill, which was offered by Norton. Her amendment would redirect voucher funding for religious and other private schools to D.C. public and charter schools.
Just before the vote, Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.), the presiding officer during the debate, dismissed a point of order raised by Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.). Weiner argued that the estimated costs of the bill are not offset by spending cuts, in violation of House rules approved by Republicans and often cited by Republican leaders.
Bass said that Weiner’s point of order was “untimely.” Weiner then asked, “Does the rule stipulated here exist, and is the only reason we’re not following it [because] I didn’t get to the floor in time?”
Bass replied briefly, “The chair will not respond to political commentary,” to loud boos from Democrats.