Voucher Proposal Is Deplored By House Education Panel
Washington--Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell asked a House Education and Labor subcommittee last week "for a little more objectivity'' in judging a proposal to let state and local school officials provide educational services to disadvantaged children through a voucher system.
Despite that plea, members of the Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education warned the Secretary that the measure "is difficult to take seriously" and that chances "are virtually nil" that it will win Congressional approval.
Secretary Bell and several of his assistants appeared before the panel to press for the adoption of the "equal education opportunity act,'' which would amend Chapter 1 of the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act of 1981.
If approved, the measure would allow state officials to order local school boards to provide disadvantaged families with vouchers worth approximately $525 to help them pay the cost of educating their children at either public or private schools. If the states declined to order such a change, the local boards would be given the right to make that decision on their own.
Several major educational and public-interest organizations have lobbied to block the measure, claiming that it would weaken the Chapter 1 program and would make it easier for some parents to send their children to private schools that enroll few or no minority students.
The Secretary strongly disputed that allegation during last week's hearing, describing the bill as "a simple measure intended to introduce more flexibility into the elementary and secondary education system in this country."
"This Administration believes that parents of disadvantaged children should be able to exercise effective choice--through vouchers," Mr. Bell said. "The more options we can provide, the better."
"We don't think that the Chapter 1 program is so perfect that it cannot be improved on," Mr. Bell continued. He acknowledged nonetheless that "we know that we're swimming upstream on this issue."
The subcommittee members appeared to be most interested in finding out how local Chapter 1 programs would be affected by the voucher plan and how the rights of minorities would be affected under the proposed changes.
Representative George Miller, Democrat of California, asked Mr. Bell what would happen if the majority of a district's disadvantaged children suddenly enrolled in private schools as a result of the enactment of the voucher measure.
"The district would still be in total control," the Secretary responded. "Under the proposal, it would be entirely up to them to determine how many of their students they would let go."
"But then how would the district determine how many students could go?" the Congressman asked. "It would be hard to argue that you could let three-quarters of your Chapter 1 students leave and still have a high-quality program for the one-quarter who are left."
Representative Miller also asked whether private schools would be re-quired to deduct the worth of the voucher from a prospective student's tuition, or whether the schools could charge the student full tuition and redeem his voucher as well. "Are these students going to be 'bonus babies' for these schools?" he asked.
Mr. Bell said that the issue of tuition was a matter "to be negotiated" between the local public-school officials, the parents, and the private school. To that, Mr. Miller retorted, "But wouldn't we want to know that at the federal level? Chapter 1 is a $3-billion program. As the board of directors of that program, don't we have an interest in knowing where that money is going?"
The lawmakers also asked the Secretary to name the organizations and individuals who have supported the voucher plan. "The traditional advocates of the poor, the very persons whom this law is supposed to benefit, aren't jumping on the bandwagon," said Representative Dale E. Kildee, Democrat of Michigan. "I would think that would be a matter of concern to you."
Representative Kildee also questioned whether the measure's civil-rights protections were strong enough. When Gary Bauer, deputy undersecretary for planning, budget, and evaluation, pointed out that 11 of the bill's 18 pages were devoted to civil-rights issues, the legislator replied that "11 pages do not impress anyone. As a former schoolteacher, I can tell you that it's not the verbiage, but the quality that counts."