There is no issue in public education as hard fought as the effort to keep public dollars away from private schools, and its most epic battle is about to open in the Senate.
At stake is whether, for the first time, federal dollars will fund a voucher program for children to attend private, including religious, schools. The target is the nation's capital - a huge symbolic victory for pro-voucher forces, who call their issue the "new civil-rights movement."
Equally passionate, opponents say that vouchers will give politicians a dangerous exit from their responsibility to provide a quality public education for all children. No one doubts the importance of the Senate debate, which is expected as early as Tuesday.
"To get a school-choice program in Washington, D.C., would have a seismic impact, more than any other city where we could get such a program passed," says Clint Bolick, vice president of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm that has defended every school-choice program in the United States.
There are currently five publicly-funded voucher programs in the US - including Milwaukee (1990), Cleveland (1995), and Florida (1999). Maine and Vermont have run "tuitioning" programs for towns too small for a public high school since the 18th century.
The US Senate debate comes a year after a long-awaited Supreme Court decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, which narrowly upheld the constitutionality of the Cleveland voucher program.
In the past, public school choice has failed every time it has come before voter. Congress passed a limited Washington, D.C., voucher program in 1997, but it was vetoed by President Clinton. That would not be the response of President Bush, who favors vouchers.
"One of the reasons we urged the entire school-choice movement to make D.C. a national priority this year is that we have a Republican Senate, House, and president, and there are some of us who do not count on having that situation forever," says Mr. Bolick.
After an emotional debate, the House voted to attach an experimental, five-year voucher program to the $40 million D.C. spending bill. The program would provide "opportunity scholarships" of up to $7,500 to some 1,300 low-income students in low-performing schools. A second vote was held open an additional 25 minutes, until a Republican who had opposed the plan changed his vote. The $10 million measure passed, 209-208.
"This is an undemocratic imposition of private-school vouchers on the people of D.C.," says delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), Washington's nonvoting representative in the House. She says vouchers may have a fairer debate in the Senate, where rules are less favorable to the majority. "I want a debate. I think we can beat these people," she says.
In April, Colorado became the first state since the Zelman case to adopt a voucher program, after a 15-year campaign by pro-choice advocates. Supporters credit help from parochial schools and evangelical churches, with opposition organized by teachers unions.
"Major donors committed to vouchers helped us take the state senate in 2002, then funded the lobbying and media effort when legislation began to move in 2003," says State Sen. John Andrews, a Republican from the Denver suburbs in a commentary for the Heartland Institute, a libertarian group.
Many of the same groups are heavily engaged in the D.C. voucher fight.
Teachers unions are funding local radio ads to urge senators to reject the voucher proposal because they say it shortchanges public schools at a time of scarcity.
"It would send an unfortunate signal that our local elected officials have given up on helping parents and our local community reform our schools," says Iris Toyer, cochair of Parents United for the DC Public Schools, which is also urging senators to reject vouchers.
Meanwhile, pro-choice supporters are funding television and radio ads in Massachusetts and Louisiana to pressure Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy and Mary Landrieu, who are expected to be key opponents in the Senate debate. In an op-ed in Sunday's Washington Post, the Rev. Theodore McCarrick, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington, noted that many of the students in the District's 29 parochial schools are not Catholic, and that vouchers will help all children.
A key new player in this year's voucher debate is the city's Democratic mayor, Anthony Williams, who testified for the voucher program in the House and is lobbying hard in the Senate.
But Joe Madison, "the Black Eagle," Washington's top talk-show host, says "the vast majority of callers who listen to our show are opposed to the mayor and to vouchers."