Senator Ensign Defends the DC School Voucher Program

Posted on March 6, 2009 In Blog

Yesterday, Senator John Ensign (R-NV) delivered the following speech on the Senate floor in defense of the existing Washington, DC School Voucher Program.

As advocates of constitutionally permissible aid to empower parents to choose the best education for their children, we at the Orthodox Union are very pleased to see Senator Ensign speaking out in defense of this valuable and successful program.


The PRESIDING OFFICER (Ms. Klobuchar). The Senator from Nevada is recognized.

Mr. ENSIGN: Madam President, in a moment I am going to ask unanimous consent that the pending amendment be set aside so I can offer an amendment dealing with the DC scholarship program for low-income children. I wish to talk about it first and give the other side fair warning, because I understand that the other side is going to object, which is very unfortunate.
We have had a wonderful program that recognized DC public schools are failing children of the District of Columbia. Most of those children are low income, minority children. A few years ago, under a Republican Congress and President Bush, we put together a program that initiated a little experiment. In DC schools, the dropout rates are high, kids aren’t learning to read at the appropriate levels, they aren’t learning math at the appropriate levels; across the board the crime levels are too high in the schools. Since the vast majority of the schools in the District of Columbia are failing the kids, Congress decided to experiment here and see if something works. So we selected 1,700 kids and we gave their parents a $7,500 scholarship to be able to go to the school of their choosing in the area. The response by the parents was overwhelming. A lot more people wanted to sign up for this program than there were scholarships available, but we at least allowed 1,700 children to participate for the last five years, this
being the sixth year now.
In this underlying bill, there is language that effectively kills this program, because it says that unless the bill is reauthorized and the DC City Council approves the program, no funding shall be allowed to go toward this DC scholarship fund.
Now, we know Head Start and the Higher Education Act both continued, even though they weren’t reauthorized, for many years until we were able to come together to reauthorize. That is not uncommon in this building because it is difficult to get legislation reauthorized. So we continued funding Head Start. We continued funding Higher Education. But the No. 1 issue for the National Education Association is to kill the DC scholarship program for poor children. I ask: What are they afraid of? Well, as was stated today in the Chicago Tribune, they are not afraid of this program because it is failing; they are afraid of this program because it is actually working. Let’s ask a
commonsense question: If this program weren’t working, would the children who have received this scholarship continue in this program? The obvious answer is of course they wouldn’t. They would go back into their other schools.
We had a press conference earlier today with some of the parents and teachers who are involved in this program. Three wonderful young men came together with us today. We had Fransoir, Richard, and Ronald. Two of them had written statements, and then there was little Richard who got up and spoke off the cuff. All three of them were incredibly articulate. They were talking about how important this scholarship program was to them and how they didn’t want to go back to the other schools because in the schools they are in today, they are actually learning.
So do we put the interests of the National Education Association first, or do we put the interests of our children first? It isn’t just these 1,700 kids whose future is at stake. We are trying to look for programs in education, reforms that actually work, because the No. 1 priority for our children should be about their education into the
future. If they are going to compete in the 21st century, they have to have a good education. It is the new civil right of our day. It is not a civil right to stick them in failing schools that are unsafe, that are gang ridden, that are drug ridden, that have teachers who are not teaching our children in a constructive manner. It is not a civil right to say to them: I know other people have more money than you. They can go to a good school and can learn, but we are going to trap you in this poor performing school simply because you don’t have enough money. Civil rights is supposed to be about giving people opportunities, not based on income, not based on race, not based on religion, but simply because they are Americans who can actually have a chance.
So this program is going to show, I believe, as the studies come out on it, that these kids did better because they had an opportunity. I think this is what the National Education Association is afraid of. They are afraid this program is going to work and it will then be tried in other areas. What are we afraid of? Are we afraid we are actually going to improve education in the United States through an innovative program?
Even yesterday, the Secretary of Education under President Obama
made this comment about the DC scholarship program. He said:
I don’t think it makes sense to take kids out of a school where
they’re happy and safe and satisfied and learning. I think those kids
need to stay in their school.
He was talking about those 1,700 kids who are in the DC schools under this scholarship program today. Two of those children actually go to school with President Obama’s children. Unfortunately, the majority party in Congress has written into this bill that we are going to take those kids out of these schools. We are going to effectively eliminate the scholarship that allows them to stay in their schools. One young man, Ronald, who was here today is a junior in high school. Ronald is also the Deputy Youth Mayor for Washington DC and has made education his number one priority. Next year Ronald will be a senior. They are going to take him out of a school he has attended the last 5 or 6 years and make him go to a different high school for his senior year. At this other high school, it’s likely over half the kids aren’t learning at the grade level they should be learning at and where about half of them drop out of that school. Instead, Ronald should remain at the school that gave him a future, hope, and opportunity. I wish all Americans could have heard him speaking today, and then I would like to see the other side of the aisle vote against this amendment and vote against allowing this
amendment to even come to a vote.
It is very unfortunate that the other side is not allowing us to do but just a few amendments, amendments that they deem worthy to be voted on. That is not the way the Senate has worked the last several weeks. It has actually been working. As the minority, we realize we have fewer votes on this side. We understand that. We understand we are going to lose most of these votes. Occasionally, as last week, we
did win one, but most of the time we are losing these votes. That is the way this body is at least supposed to work, you debate amendments and you have votes on the amendments.
Unfortunately, with regards to the bill before us, that is not the case. Normally, we vote on appropriations bills one at a time and somewhere around 15 amendments per bill are offered and voted on. We have eight or nine bills combined together and, so far, I think we have had six or seven amendments voted on. We will have a few more voted on tonight. That seems to be the total that the majority wants us to vote on. By the way, the Democrats have come to an agreement that they are going to defeat them, whether they are meritorious or not, because they set a false deadline of tomorrow to finish the bill. They said tomorrow the funding runs out for our Government. In reality, all you have to do is pass a continuing resolution that will fund the Government for another week. We could do it on a voice vote, and then the House can do it on a voice vote. Then we can come back next week and debate amendments and have votes on them.
This is one of the amendments that needs to be voted on. If you want to throw 1,700 kids out of good schools and put them into nonperforming schools, I want you recorded on this vote. Some have said this isn’t just going to poor children. The limit is 185 percent of poverty and below. That is the limit of the income to qualify for this scholarship program. The average income for families qualifying for this scholarship is $23,000 a year.
The National Education Association said this is a threat to public education. Oh, really? First of all, $7,500 is what we give as a scholarship. The average spent per student in Washington, DC, public schools is around $15,000. So we are spending half that. We didn’t give them the full $15,000, just half that. This was in addition to the Washington, DC, School District money. But the benefit is, every child you take out of Washington, DC schools, allows money to be spent on other students.
I have a couple stories to tell you about. Sherine Robinson, the parent of an opportunity scholarship recipient, believes parents should not have to worry about violence in their schools. That is one of the reasons some of the parents are taking their children out. It is not just the educational opportunities, it is the violence they may have to experience while they are in school. She believes the parents should not have to fight for their kids to learn. She believes all parents should have a choice and “the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program gives us a chance to find the best school possible.” Those are the words of a parent. She now feels her child is in a safe school
and is doing well. Why do we want to deprive her of that opportunity?
Obviously, I believe strongly in this scholarship program. I believe this program is working. I believe we can prove it is working statically and spread this program across the country. Let’s put our children first; let’s not put special interests before our children
and their education. That is what this argument comes down to.
Let’s use common sense and put compassion back into this bill. Let’s allow amendments so we can take care of our kids and educate them in the way they deserve to be educated.
I ask unanimous consent that the pending amendment be set aside and that I be allowed to call up the Ensign amendment No. 615, which provides an opportunity scholarship for 1,700 poor children in the District of Columbia.

The PRESIDING OFFICER: Is there objection?

Mr. INOUYE: Madam President, on behalf of the leadership, I object.

The PRESIDING OFFICER: Objection is heard.

Mr. ENSIGN: Madam President, this is most unfortunate. It is what I thought would happen. There was a rumor going around today that this would happen. I plead with the other side to give these 1,700 children a chance to learn, a chance to continue in the program that is working for them. I would love to expand the program, but I know that is not doable in this Congress. But let’s at least keep these 1,700 schoolchildren in school with the ability to learn, in safe schools that are actually giving them hope and opportunity for the future.

I yield the floor.