E.D Voucher Bill, In Shift, Offers Parents Choices
Washington--Education Department officials have revised their Chapter 1 voucher proposal and will soon send to the Congress a bill radically different from previous legislation.
A near-final draft of the new bill, which was obtained by Education Week, states that parents would be able to redeem a $600 voucher on demand for educational services at a public or private school and to spend it either for tuition or remedial services.
In contrast, the Reagan Administration's 1983 bill and legislation prepared after the Supreme Court's July 1 decision in Aguilar v. Felton--which barred Chapter 1 teachers from religious-school classrooms--would have required school districts to enact a Chapter 1 voucher program before parents could get the federal voucher.
"I got tired of compromising with ourselves," Undersecretary of Education Gary L. Bauer said in an interview, explaining the changes in the bill.
Other officials and lobbyists said that changes in the bill were made in an effort to guarantee expanded parental choice and to solidify political support for the legislation.
The bill is "bad public policy and humiliating to the Secretary," commented Arnold F. Fege, director of governmental relations for the National Congress of Parents and Teachers. "It's part of a propaganda war against the public schools."
It remains to be seen whether the new proposal--or the upheaval in the Chapter 1 program caused by the Felton decision--will make a dent in the strong opposition to vouchers in the Congress.
"Even the Republicans on my committee laugh at these ideas" about vouchers, commented the Democratic chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, Representative Augustus F. Hawkins of California, in a recent interview.
Both the National Education Association, which controls one of the biggest political-action committees in the nation, and the American Federation of Teachers are strongly opposed to vouchers.
Intense Congressional opposition quashed the 1983 legislation after one hearing.
The $3.7-billion Chapter 1 program is the largest federal precollegiate-education effort, financing remedial instruction for nearly 5 million disadvantaged students.
But in Felton, the Justices prohibited public-school teachers from providing Chapter 1 aid on the premises of religious schools, thus invalidating the way most religious-school students had received their federally funded remedial aid. Large urban districts, in particular, have been unable to serve thousands of religious-school students so far this year.
The U.S. Catholic Conference, which has opposed Chapter 1 vouchers, may support the new proposal because of the impact of Felton, according to Richard E. Duffy, director of federal education assistance with the conference.
He said the organization would not take a position until it saw the bill, which has not been circulated by department officials. But he added that the change, giving parents more choice, "makes the bill more acceptable to us."
Reasons for Change
The latest push for vouchers came after the Felton decision on July 1. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett said in an interview published in the conservative weekly Human Events that the decision "may actually, unintentionally, help us get closer to the voucher program in Chapter 1 that we've been trying to get."
But key constituencies for the voucher idea--particularly "New Right" supporters of President Reagan's social agenda--were dissatisfied with the bill circulated by the Secretary's aides immediately following Felton because it too closely resembled the 1983 proposal, according to Eileen M. Gardner, education-policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation.
"The first version didn't seem serious because it didn't give parents the option," Ms. Gardner commented.
Because districts were considered highly unlikely to take on the administrative burden of converting their programs to a voucher system, parents would not be given the chance to exercise any real choice of their own, Ms. Gardner and others reasoned.
In meetings with Mr. Bauer, Ms. Gardner and other conservative education experts expressed this con-cern "immediately, and it never died,'' she said.
"We figured that if we're going to get behind a bill hard, it ought to be a bill that would have a wide chance of being effective," said Ms. Gardner.
She the support of key groups for vouchers will be more enthusiastic now because of the new bill.
Mr. Bauer said the voucher bill--The Equity and Choice Act of 1985 (teach)--would be one of the department's top priorities.
He said agency officials and other voucher supporters plan to take their campaign to inner cities to arouse grassroots support among minority groups, a constituency that typically opposes Reagan Administration policies.
According to the draft of the bill, parents of educationally disadvantaged students would be allowed to claim their voucher on demand and use it at any public school outside their district, or any public school outside their attendance area--if the local educational agency permits it--or any eligible private school.
A private school would be eligible if it had a full-time elementary- or secondary-education program; was an educational institution, as defined by the Internal Revenue Service; and provided assurances that it did not discriminate on the basis of race.
Chapter 1 vouchers, which department officials have said would amount to about $600, would not be counted as taxable income under teach.
The bill would require a state to notify parents of Chapter 1 students of their options under the plan, and require districts to convene to discuss the "availability and authorized uses of vouchers."
The primary mechanism to ensure accountability, Mr. Bauer said, would be audits by the department's inspector general.
Secretary Bennett has advocated choice as crucial to improving schools, but he has also expressed concern about the constitutionality of vouchers.
The new bill apparently attempts to stay within the strictures of both Felton and the 1983 Supreme Court decision in Mueller v. Allen.
In Mueller, the Justices said tax deductions offered parents for some education expenses of religious-school students are constitutional as long as they also apply to public-school parents.
In his concurring opinion in Felton, Associate Justice Lewis F. Powell wrote that federal aid for religious-school students may pass constitutional muster if government agencies do not control the money--a key principle in the department's latest voucher bill.
But the bill, which declares that a voucher does not constitute government assistance to a private school receiving the federally underwritten aid, would also allow the voucher used by parents to "supplant" private-school funds.