House passes Boehner’s DC school choice bill
© Greg Nash

The House on Wednesday passed legislation to reauthorize a D.C. school voucher program in a vote that represented a swan song for outgoing Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerIt's time for McConnell to fight with Trump instead of against him How Republicans can bring order out of the GOP's chaos Republican donor sues GOP for fraud over ObamaCare repeal failure MORE (R-Ohio).

Passed 240-191 largely along party lines, the measure renews the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which allows low-income students in Washington to attend private schools using taxpayer-funded vouchers.

Boehner, a former House Education Committee chairman and co-author of the No Child Left Behind law, has made the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program one of his signature issues during his tenure in Congress. The program was first created in 2003 in coordination with D.C. public officials while Boehner served as Education Committee chairman. Congress renewed it in 2011 despite opposition from the Obama administration.

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The D.C. scholarship program has remained close to Boehner's heart in the years since its inception. Boehner, a Catholic, has invited students from D.C.’s Catholic schools to attend the State of the Union on an annual basis. He also recently hosted a group of Catholic D.C. students when Pope Francis visited the Capitol last month.

Boehner cited statistics showing that nearly 90 percent of high school seniors using the vouchers graduated, compared to the 60 percent rate overall for D.C. public schools.

“Yes, this issue is personal to me, and has been for a long time,” Boehner said during House floor debate, fighting back tears.

“But frankly, it ought to be personal to every single member of this body. Those of us who work here, who make a good living, we owe something to the kids in this town. We owe the kids in this city a chance — a fighting chance — at success,” Boehner said.

Passage of the measure marked a moment of relative GOP unity. Only eight mostly centrist Republicans joined ranks with Democrats in opposition. The most conservative members, who are frequently the cause of the divisions that dogged Boehner's tenure as Speaker, voted for the measure.

The White House issued a statement opposing the bill but stopped short of a veto threat. And given Democratic opposition, the bill faces long odds in the Senate.

“Instead of using federal resources to support a handful of students in private schools, the federal government should focus its attention and available resources on improving the quality of public schools for all students,” the White House said in a Statement of Administration Policy.

The measure authorizes $60 million from fiscal 2017 through 2021, which reflects the current funding level.

Before final passage, the House rejected an amendment from D.C.’s non-voting representative, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), that would limit schools to have no more than 50 percent enrollment of students using the vouchers. It failed on a voice vote.

Norton said she had been willing to compromise on a measure that allowed current D.C. voucher students to remain in the program until graduation, unlike Wednesday’s measure that would open up to new recipients. But she suggested Wednesday’s vote was merely meant to recognize Boehner on his way out the door.

“We are here so that Speaker John Boehner has a capstone to his own political career. The D.C. voucher program is his pet project, not D.C.’s,” Norton said.

“D.C. residents, not unaccountable members of Congress, know best what our children need and how to govern our own affairs,” she added. 

Boehner has set the internal GOP conference vote to nominate a Speaker for Oct. 28, with a floor vote a day later. He has said he still expects to be out of Congress by the end of next week, despite the uncertainty surrounding who will succeed him as Speaker.