Outgoing House Speaker John Boehner has one swan song that’s guaranteed to be a hit among even his most bitter Republican critics: picking a fight with the president over private school vouchers.
The House is expected to pass a bill extending the life of Washington’s school voucher program Wednesday, setting up an outsized fight with the White House over a small, $45 million program that allows students from low-income families in the nation’s capital to attend private schools on the taxpayer dime.
School vouchers have united even the angriest factions of the GOP: The day after Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy dropped out of the race for speaker and the chamber descended deeper into turmoil, some of Boehner’s fiercest critics gathered to wax poetic about vouchers during a markup.
For poor students growing up in the district, the voucher program is “truly an opportunity to be the brightest and best that God had made,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who had tried to oust Boehner from the speaker’s chair. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), chair of the Freedom Caucus and a thorn in the side of leadership, asked simply: “How bad does it have to get before you give some people choice?”
Democrats have criticized the program as ineffective and harmful to public schools — and an ironic Republican cause celebre given the GOP’s frequent calls for transferring more power to states.
"The D.C. voucher program is [Boehner’s] pet project, not ours,” Washington, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said. She cited a letter from the majority of D.C. Council members that recently called the issue a “quintessentially local matter.”
The so-called D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program allocates funds directly from Congress for D.C. students to use at a private school of their choice. About 6,200 students have used the vouchers over the last 10 years, and the average household income of enrolled students is about $20,575. Proponents note that the bill adds federal funds to D.C. public and charter schools in addition to creating the private school vouchers, a feature that has persuaded some Democrats to support the program over the years.
Yet fights over Washington’s vouchers, which have raged for more than a decade and even earned a plot line on the television show "The West Wing," rarely focus solely on the realities of schools in the district. Rather, it’s a proxy for lawmakers debating if — and when — the government should pour resources into helping poor kids escape failing public schools. Democrats and teachers unions argue the focus should remain on improving the public school system, while Republicans argue students in poorly performing schools need other options.
In the Senate it will be difficult for supporters, led by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), to net the 60 votes that Boehner’s bill will need to pass. Vouchers have some support from Democrats but have long been opposed by the majority of the party. After the House passes its measure, voucher proponents’ best bet is to tuck the program into a larger, must-pass law — and there are plenty of those in the congressional pipeline, including bills to increase the debt limit and keep the government funded past Dec. 11.
Boehner allies point out the program isn’t just a political football. It is dear to the speaker, who chaired the House education committee for several years starting in 2001, after being kicked out of House leadership.
In negotiations on his other signature education measure, No Child Left Behind, vouchers were a no-go with Democrats. Republicans eventually worked a voucher program into federal law two years later, but only for children in the nation's capital.
Boehner has repeatedly saved the program from oblivion when Democrats, including President Barack Obama, have tried to kill it. Students who use the vouchers are invited by Boehner to the State of the Union, White House Christmas tree lightings and, recently, to sit on the Capitol’s upper west terrace to see the pope. Teachers and administrators attend an annual reception Boehner hosts at the Capitol.
And Wednesday, after the House votes on the bill, the speaker will take what is all but certain to be a victory lap at an annual fundraiser he co-hosts to raise money for D.C. Catholic schools, which enroll large numbers of voucher recipients.
Boehner, the son of a barkeeper who attended Catholic high school in Ohio growing up, has raised raised millions of dollars over the years for the District’s Catholic schools. For Boehner, private school provided an “expanded vision of what was possible for him that he wouldn’t have gotten otherwise,” said former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), now senior counsel at Kasowitz, Benson, Torres and Friedman LLP, who worked closely with Boehner over the years to keep the program alive.
“At every turn, he’s been an incredible champion,” said Kevin Chavous, a Democrat who advised Obama during his 2008 campaign but has supported the program, and worked to enact it as a D.C. City Council member. Most Democrats have opposed the voucher program since it was created. Obama moved to phase out the program within months of taking office. Democrats successfully thwarted plans to reauthorize the program and triggered a phase-out.
But once he took the speaker’s gavel in 2011, Boehner quickly filed a bill to renew the voucher program. The move wasn’t without some partisan flair: He unveiled his bill — the only one he would attach his name to that Congress — the day after the president called for improving education in the State of the Union.
“If the president is sincere about working together on education reform, we should start by saving this successful, bipartisan program that has helped so many underprivileged children get a quality education," Boehner said at the time.
Boehner couldn’t get the bill signed into law on its own because of Democratic opposition. But later that year, when it came time to strike a government spending deal, Lieberman recalled, Boehner threatened to hold up the entire federal budget if the tiny voucher program wasn’t in it.
“Most things [in the spending deal] were agreed to, and the speaker asked his staff, had the administration agreed to put the funding back in for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program? And they said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘Well, no deal,’” Lieberman said. The Obama administration eventually relented.
A year later, Obama again cut funding for the program in his budget and Boehner again struck a deal, this time getting the funding but giving the Obama administration an evaluation of the program. More recently, Obama has again proposed cutting the program but eventually signed spending bills that keep it.
This fall, Democrats have heavily criticized the voucher bill as it began moving through the chamber in the days after Boehner announced his decision to leave Congress.
“I would much rather see that money distributed among all the schools — that’s it, it’s simple as that,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). Cummings, a product of public schools, said his concerns about the voucher bill might stem from having attended a poorly funded Maryland elementary school a stone’s throw away from a wealthy, majority-white school that had far more resources.
“The only reason I knew the white school existed is because that’s the only place where we could go to have our Christmas plays — because they had an auditorium,” Cummings said. “So you will never get me to say that taking money from the public school for a few is something I support. I just don’t.”
The voucher program does have a handful of left-leaning supporters on Capitol Hill: Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) have signed on to the Senate’s companion to the House bill, for example.
Scott, the lead sponsor of the Senate bill, said he’s still working on a strategy for getting the bill through the chamber but is hopeful he can move the voucher bill this year, especially because of Boehner’s work on the issue.
“It would be a great way to send him out,” Scott said.