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Frist rallies support for school vouchers

Senate to take up proposed D.C. program Wednesday

From Brad Wright
CNN Washington Bureau

The Senate is scheduled to consider a bill that would establish a pilot school voucher program for the District of Columbia.
The Senate is scheduled to consider a bill that would establish a pilot school voucher program for the District of Columbia.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Hoping to erode Democratic opposition, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist joined forces Tuesday with two prominent Democrats to rally support for a five-year school voucher program for the nation's capital.

The voucher program, widely supported by conservatives, is attached to a budget bill for the District of Columbia, a measure the Senate is scheduled to take up Wednesday.

Washington Mayor Anthony Williams and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California joined Frist, a Tennessee Republican., and Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio, Republican chairman of the appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the District of Columbia, at a news conference to outline their support for the program.

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, met separately to discuss whether to mount a filibuster against the measure.

The Senate is to consider a voucher bill similar to one that barely passed in the House earlier this month.

Opponents of vouchers have decried the effort to use taxpayer dollars to help cover tuition in religious schools, saying such vouchers take money away from efforts to improve public schools. Supporters of the program got a boost last summer when the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that a voucher program in Cleveland, Ohio, was constitutional.

Proponents of the program are also counting on the high-profile Democratic support of Feinstein and Williams to sway some senators.

Feinstein said she decided to support the effort because, she said, it does not take away money from schools in Washington. Instead, the Senate bill calls for $13 million in new money. The money would provide the families of 1,700 low-income Washington students with vouchers worth up to $7,500 each to attend private or parochial schools.

"If this program took money from the public schools, I wouldn't support it," Feinstein said. "If this program had not been requested by the mayor, I wouldn't support it. If it were not a pilot program for five years with accountability and measurement to test the youngsters at the end of five years, I wouldn't support it."

Congress passed a bill that would have provided vouchers for D.C. schools several years ago, but it was vetoed by then-President Clinton.

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