Bennett, Countering Criticism, Unveils Voucher Plan
Secretary of Education William J. Bennett last week unveiled his proposal for distributing Chapter 1 aid through vouchers, saying it would benefit disadvantaged students by "enabling parents to choose the educational program that best meets the needs of their children."
Opponents of vouchers have claimed that the bill would undermine the $3.7-billion program for educationally disadvantaged children, place a major administrative burden on school districts, and amount to unconstitutional governmental support of religious schools.
The bill would allow parents of disadvantaged students to redeem a voucher of about $600 for educational services at the public or private school of their choice.
Aside from offering choices to the parents of disadvantaged students, the bill's two other main goals are encouraging parental involvement and fostering competition among schools, said the Secretary, who spoke at his second press conference since assuming office last February.
The bill, entitled "the equity and choice act of 1985" (teach), would be introduced in the Congress by this week, said Mr. Bennett.
Senator Orrin G. Hatch, chair4man of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, announced that he would sponsor teach in the Senate.
Representative Patrick L. Swindall, Republican of Georgia, a freshman who does not sit on the Education and Labor Committee, will sponsor the legislation in the House.
At the press conference last week, Mr. Bennett, citing analyses by the Justice and Education Departments, asserted that the bill would pass constitutional muster. And he denied that districts would be faced with a new major administrative burden.
Mr. Bennett said the proposal "makes it easier for local school districts" to serve religious-school students in the wake of the Supreme Court's Aguilar v. Felton decision barring Chapter 1 teachers from religious schools.
He said the competition that the bill would foster "will lead to better educational services for disadvantaged children, and greater opportunities for them in later life."
Chapter 1 of the Educational Consolidation and Improvement Act of 1981 underwrites remedial education for about 5 million public- and private-school students. Currently, districts receive Chapter 1 funds based on a per-pupil formula.
Mr. Bennett disputed opponents who argue that a voucher worth $600 would not be sufficient to purchase significant educational services at8suburban public schools or inner-city private schools with tuition fees of up to several thousand dollars.
"Don't assume a static universe," he said, implying that such schools would change their practices to attract disadvantaged students and their vouchers.
Opponents of the bill said last week they were not swayed by the Reagan Administration's arguments.
And despite the endorsement of Senator Hatch, Republican of Utah, the bill is unlikely to progress very far on Capitol Hill, lobbyists and lawmakers said.
"I really don't see any benefits" in the bill, said Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union. "Basically, it fuels false hopes of a lot of poor and minority parents."
Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement that the main problem with Chapter 1 is insufficient funding. He termed the voucher bill an "ill timed" and "ill conceived ... attempt to divert money to private schools."
Bruce Hunter, director of federal-state relations for the Council of Chief State School Officers, said the bill is "not a serious legislative proposal." Rather, he said, it constitutes the Administration's position statement in a broadening national debate on the issue of choice.