06/18/2012 07:17 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2012

Obama Administration Softens Position On D.C. Voucher Program

The Obama administration softened its position on Monday about not expanding the District of Columbia's private school voucher program, after months of attacks by conservatives of the president's decision to provide level funding to the program next year. Instead the administration agreed to finance slots for 85 additional students.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan released a statement late Monday, citing an agreement that the Obama administration had reached "in partnership with Speaker [John] Boehner," to increase the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program "from the current enrollment of about 1615 to approximately 1700 students."

This would "allow for a statistically valid evaluation of the program, as directed by Congress," Duncan said. "The President and I are committed to ensuring that the education of the children currently in the DC Opportunity Scholarship program is not disrupted." He added, however, "We remain convinced that our time and resources are best spent on reforming the public school system to benefit all Students and we look forward to working with Congress in a bipartisan manner to advance that goal."

Earlier on Monday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) announced their agreement with the Department of Education indicating that an increased number of students would be allowed to participate.

Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a bill that would provide $13.5 million for the District of Columbia voucher program. The House Appropriations Committee is expected to consider and pass its version of the spending bill on Wednesday, according to Congressional Quarterly.

As of Monday afternoon, the exact details of the agreement between the administration and Boehner and Lieberman were unclear.

Today's announcement amounts to yet another change in the Obama administration's stance toward the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, established in 2004 and granting vouchers to low-income students in the nation's capital so they can attend private schools.

Earlier in his career, Obama had demonstrated an openness to vouchers. As a presidential candidate, Obama told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "If there was any argument for vouchers, it was 'Alright, let's see if this experiment works,' and if it does, then whatever my preconceptions, my attitude is you do what works for the kids." He added, "I will not allow my predispositions to stand in the way of making sure that our kids can learn. We're losing several generations of kids and something has to be done."

But in March 2011, the Obama administration took a position opposing the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act, or SOAR Act, authored by Boehner and Lieberman to reauthorize the D.C. voucher program and provide additional funds. "The Administration strongly opposes expanding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and opening it to new students," the White House statement declared.

But less than two weeks later, the president agreed to sign the SOAR Act into law as part of negotiations to prevent a government shutdown.

With the release of Obama's budget for Fiscal Year 2013, the White House announced in February of this yearthat it would not provide increased funds for the program, which had received more than $17 million from the federal government for 2012.

This decision drew conservative ire. Last month, presumptive GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney attacked Obama for his stance on the D.C. voucher program, calling it a "national showcase" for education reform.

Since the inception of the voucher program, policymakers have disagreed about it. Supporters, such as Boehner, have viewed it as a lifeline to students in a troubled public school system while opponents have claimed it creates a two-tiered education system that siphons away critical funds for public schools. Voucher programs across the country have prompted lawsuits and investigations in recent years.

In a June 13 letter to Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the American Federation of Teachers argued that the "voucher program has proven to be flawed and ineffective, and there is no justification for providing funds to expand the program." Plus the AFT stated, "Scarce federal resources should be focused on that goal as President Obama has recommended in his proposed budget, rather than on an ineffective program providing private school vouchers for a few students."

But voucher advocates such as Boehner have avidly supported the program. "For eight years, the scholarship program has empowered low-income parents to choose the best learning environment for their children," Boehner declared in his statement Monday morning. "Thousands of families have taken advantage of this scholarship program to give their children an opportunity to succeed in life, and there's strong evidence that it's both effective and cost-effective."

Similar to the range of political opinions on school vouchers, the research has diverged. A 2008 study by the U.S. Education Department's research arm similarly concluded that students in the D.C. program for two years saw "no statistically significant difference in test scores" between those not in the program, though it did find "a positive impact on overall parent satisfaction." Supporters point to a 2010 Education Department report, which concluded that 82 percent of Opportunity Scholarship participants graduated from high school, as opposed to the 70 percent rate for those who applied but did not receive vouchers.

"When you're in D.C. and you look at the kids getting these scholarships, there's a strong coalition of parents focused on continuing it," said Charles Barone, who directs policy for Democrats for Education Reform, a Democratic advocacy group that often splits from the positions of teachers' unions on education and is "agnostic" on vouchers. "It's hard to be the bad guy and say kids aren't going to get them anymore."

Joy Resmovits contributed to this report.