GLAA on school voucher fight

GLAA defends Home Rule in voucher fight

The following letters were sent to Senator Kennedy (and other senators) and the White House to express GLAA's views concerning actions in Congress blocking the District's 1996 appropriations bill over a private school voucher proposal which GLAA itself adamantly opposes. Our position was in accord with that of most Distict leaders. With House Speaker Newt Gingrich's announcement that Congressional Republicans were yielding on the vouchers issue for the time being, the District won the battle for that year.

February 28, 1996

The Honorable Edward M. Kennedy
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senator Kennedy:

We are writing to urge you to end your filibuster against adoption of the District of Columbia's 1996 appropriations conference report.

We at the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington (GLAA) remain adamantly opposed to any voucher program that would give taxpayers' money to private sectarian schools. GLAA was in the forefront of the 1981 initiative battle over a school voucher program and helped to mobilize a solid gay and lesbian vote against that plan, which was trounced by District voters by a margin of 89% to 11%. Gay men and women maintain a heavy stake in preserving the separation of church and state, particularly because most sectarian private schools that would benefit from a voucher program are virulently homophobic and opposed to abortion rights.

The 1996 D.C. appropriations conference report does not force a voucher program on the District; instead, the decision is quite properly left to our elected officials. As experienced local advocates, we see no realistic chance that the City Council would ever approve any kind of voucher program to aid private sectarian schools; nor would Mayor Barry sign any such bill. Accordingly, anti-voucher forces should declare victory and let the appropriations bill pass.

As District residents and workers, we continue to be harmed by Congress' inability to pass our government's appropriations. Too many AIDS service organizations in the private sector have gone unreimbursed by the District government because of this Capitol Hill stalemate. Many other service providers in the private and public sector have also been left in the lurch too long. The District could run out of money in a few weeks if this appropriations bill is not passed.

The blame for these problems could be properly put in the past on the shoulders of voucher proponents who were willing to trample on home rule principles to advance their national-level agenda. But the burden of blame will henceforth rest on the shoulders of voucher opponents if you -- our allies and friends -- continue to filibuster despite home rule concerns having been satisfied. Senator, we are on the same side; please end the filibuster now.

Richard J. Rosendall
Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington

March 15, 1996

Marsha Scott
Deputy Assistant to the President
The White House
Old Executive Office Building, Room 115
Washington, DC 20502

Dear Marsha:

I am writing to explain in fuller detail why GLAA believes that the President should withdraw his threat to veto the FY 1996 District of Columbia appropriations conference report. We have already sent you a copy of our February 28 letter to Senator Kennedy on this same topic. When Craig Howell of our organization summarized our position to you during your March 5 meeting sponsored by Lambda Labor, Don Haines of the National ACLU office expressed a different point of view. We have explored this perspective and find it unpersuasive. I will attempt to explain why. At the same time, I will send copies of this letter to other interested parties in hopes such sharing will advance the debate constructively. Let me reiterate at the outset that GLAA, like most of the District's elected officials, is adamantly opposed to any school voucher program.

The coalition of national groups opposing adoption of the DC 1996 appropriations bill disputes the commonly-reported interpretation that the bill allows the DC Council to have the final say over whether to establish any kind of voucher program whatsoever. Instead, they fear that the bill is worded so that the Council must adopt some kind of voucher program and can only quibble about the distribution of voucher funds between "tuition scholarships" and "enhanced achievement scholarships." We have looked at the language of the conference report and find the coalition's interpretation strained. As we view it, the Council is free to veto any allocation plan that includes funding for private schools; at worst, this would mean that the funds authorized by Congress for this program would go unspent. We see no grounds for anyone to file suit as an aggrieved party should the Council veto any and all voucher programs that would divert public money to private schools (as one coalition supporter speculated to us).

Even more fundamentally, the coalition's interpretation collapses because it is incompatible with the December 1988 ruling by Judge Lamberth (Clarke v. United States) that Congress may not order the DC Council to do anything. In that case, Congress tried to order the DC Council to enact the so-called Armstrong Amendment to allow religiously-affiliated educational institutions to discriminate against student organizations promoting gay and lesbian rights. The Council balked at this order, filed suit, and won — as the judge ruled that Congress itself could legislate directly regarding the District of Columbia but that it could not order our elected officials to vote against their consciences to appease our Congressional masters. The coalition apparently feels there might be some way for voucher proponents to get around this ruling. There isn't — or, at the very least, if anyone in the coalition can advance a plausible legal argument that might circumvent this ruling, we have yet to hear of it.

There seems to be a lurking fear among supporters of the coalition that if the Council had to act on vouchers, the Council might cave in. We see no grounds for this fear. DC voters rejected vouchers in 1981 by a margin of 89% to 11%, and councilmembers (not to mention the Mayor) would ignore this fact at their political peril. In fact, Mayor Barry has already said he would veto any such measure, and only three councilmembers have been quoted in the press as being disposed to approve vouchers. All of us should be concentrating on turning these three our way or else retaliating at the polls.

One coalition supporter told us that the appropriations bill merely "throws a bone" to home rule by letting the Council vote on vouchers. We disagree. Under the bill, Congress proposes but the Council disposes — a complete reversal of the usual procedure whereby Congress can veto any Council-approved bill. We have been asked, quite fairly, whether we would be happy if Congress passed an anti-gay provision and then allowed the Council to approve it or disapprove it. I say: indeed we'd be delighted by such an arrangement. We have recourse against our own officials; if they stab us in the back, we can organize to defeat them (I hasten to point out, however, that in fact the District is one of the most gay-friendly jurisdictions in the country). We have no such influence over U.S. Representatives or Senators whom we do not elect. We have as little use for so-called "progressives" who trample on Home Rule to advance their own causes as we do for radical rightists who have more commonly played this game. (Let me note that as of this date we have received no response from Senator Kennedy's office to our February 28 letter; he is free to ignore us all he wants.)

We hope that this letter will stimulate further useful exchanges of views among all of us who oppose vouchers and support Home Rule. Thank you for your attention; we will keep you posted as the debate progresses, and we would appreciate any help the President can give us in defending the District against continued abuse at the hands of Congress.

Rick Rosendall
Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington

cc: Congresswoman Norton, Mayor Barry, DC Council members, Karen Shook, Jay Silberman, ACLU, Dale Lestina/Natl Education Association

Copyright © 1996, 1997 by Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, DC, Inc.
All Rights Reserved.
GLAA, Inc.
P.O. Box 75265
Washington, DC 20013-5265.
Phone (202)667-5139

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