District Digest: D.C. budgets and bully pulpits

D.C. Voucher program gets another year. The House Appropriations Committee voted this Wednesday to reauthorize the use of federal funds for a controversial D.C. school vouchers program. The President initially opposed continuing federal funding for the program, but Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Sen. Joesph Lieberman (I-Conn.) announced a deal they reached with the White House, ensuring that student enrollment would not be capped and that parents of students in the program will be able to reapply for the next school year.

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program provides vouchers for low-income students in the district to help pay for private school tuition. The program was started in 2004 by Congress, giving out $8000 each to about 1,600 students. A 2010 Department of Education study of the program’s first few years found that test scores of students who took the money were not significantly higher than those who remained in public school. As the Washington Post reported, Education Secretary Arne Duncan released a statement saying that the President and he are committed to the Opportunity Scholarship program, but would rather focus on fixing the D.C. Public School system at large.

Federal D.C. Budget passes with abortion rider. The district is set to take in $60 million for education this year from the federal government—equally divided between public schools, charter schools, and the voucher program. The House Appropriations Committee, however, voted to continue the ban on city money going to pay for abortions. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) pleaded with members of the committee to consider their position as members of congress, not representatives of the district. “It marginalizes the city and its residents and blatantly impedes on the District’s ability to self govern,” Lee said, according the Post. “No other city is told how to spend its locally raised revenue, so why should we force the District?” The provision has been attached to all federal funds going to the district for more than a decade, except during a brief stint in 2010 when Democrats controlled Congress. Although pro-choice champions such as D.C. Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton say they intend to fight the prohibition, change of the bill is unlikely, given the makeup of the House of Representatives.

Gray decries use of term “bully pulpit”. Gray signed a bill today which would encourage students to come forward to report incidents of discrimination and bullying to school officials. The bill also creates a formal framework for following up on such incidents and establishes an appeals process. The legislation was several years in the making and gay-rights activists have lauded the achievement. At the signing, Gray mystified observers by denouncing a specific turn of phrase. The Post reports:

During the ceremony, Gray stressed it’s also time for adults do more to set the tone that bullying is not acceptable. To prove his point, Gray said he no longer wants to hear the term “bully pulpit.”

“Why would we honor a bully by giving it a pulpit?” said Gray, in a serious tone. “You won’t hear me using it…There will no longer by a bully pulpit in the District of Columbia.”

Don’t turn off my AC. As Washington experiences its first real heat wave of the year, D.C. Council is set to pass a bill which would prevent utilities provider Pepco from withholding power to delinquent customers when the heat index is expected to break 95 degrees. “The extreme heat has negative, possibly deadly consequences,” Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), architect of the legislation, told the Post.

Mendelson wants a full term. At-large D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson ascended to the post of D.C. Council Chairman last week as Kwame Brown resigned on charges of bank fraud. Mendelson has since filed paperwork to run for a full term starting next year. Although he was elected to his fourth term by a two-to-one margin, Mendelson potentially faces a tough election. He would only be the second white chairman elected since the position was created in 1973, and black turnout is expected to be high in 2012 for Barack Obama’s reelection.

Photo: Speaker Boehner’s Office (Flickr)

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