Bill Would Help Districts Offer Private-School Choice
WASHINGTON--A House committee last week approved compromise legislation that would allow school districts to use federal funds for private-school choice programs, and a key Democratic lawmaker acknowledged that opponents of federal funding for that purpose do not have the votes to defeat such a proposal.
The measure, HR 3320, calls for $700 million in grants that would go to states and school districts to develop and implement comprehensive education-reform plans. The plans would be drafted by committees including educators, students, parents, and business leaders.
Federal funding could support a broad list of activities, but attention was riveted last week on the contentious issue of school choice.
The bill would allow districts to use their grants to support "choice programs consistent with state law and state constitutions which permit parents to select the school their children will attend." That would permit choice plans that include or exclude private schools.
Opinion on the Republican side of the committee ranges from support for public-school choice only to those who agree with the Bush Administration's desire to specifically earmark funds for experiments that include private schools.
Democratic sentiment runs from opposition to federal funding of any choice plan to support of public school choice.
When the bill was approved by a subcommittee, Representative William J. Jefferson, Democrat of Louisiana, indicated that he planned to offer an amendment removing all mention of choice. And the panel's ranking Republican, Representative Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, said some G.O.P. members would oppose a bill that did not ensure support for private-school choice. ('See Education Week, Oct. 2, 1991.)
The objective last week, in the words of Representative Steve Gunderson, Republican of Wisconsin, was "to ensure that the divisive issue of choice doesn't destroy school reform."
On Oct. 16, when the full committee convened to debate HR 3320, Democrats met privately for more than three hours in an unsuccessful effort to decide how they would proceed.
"They discussed it on a philosophical level, they discussed it on a political level, they talked about the opinion polls," a Democratic aide said. "They are scared."
Representative Jefferson decided to temper his amendment so that it limited funding to public-school choice, rather than striking all choice language--the position that committee sources and observers agree would garner a bipartisan, majority vote on the panel if there were no complicating considerations.
But there were complications. Representative William D. Ford, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the committee, feared that Republicans would offer an amendment on the House floor that would ensure support for private-school choice. And he feared that they would win.
"I know I would lose on the floor," Mr. Ford said in an interview.
Committee aides said that the Administration had proposed a $30 million demonstration program on private-school choice in negotiations with senators this summer, and that such an approach was winning acceptance.
"We're afraid people will say, it's just a small experiment,'" an aide to Mr. Ford said. "Senate staff told us it would pass on the Senate floor."
As a result, Mr. Ford offered a deal to White House officials: He would support the bill as drafted if the Administration would oppose Republican efforts to alter the choice language.
The offer was accepted in a letter from John H. Sununu, the White House chief of staff, which promised support of the current language "for the purposes of House consideration of HR 3320."
'A Pure Political Judgment'
Although he would prefer to leave out choice entirely, "I am willing to make a political gamble that they will keep their word," Mr. Ford said after the committee reconvened on Oct. 17. "It's a pure political judgment that this can minimize the damage."
He assured members that, if the deal unraveled, he would "do anything in my power" to see that the bill did not pass.
Mr. Goodling, who supports only public-school choice, said he and the panel's Democratic leaders tried to limit the likelihood of private-school plans being funded by requiring that committees drawing up local reform plans be dominated by educators. He and colleagues from both parties noted that the bill would leave the decision at the local level.
But that was not enough for some members-including one Republican, Representative Marge Roukema of New Jersey.
"If you vote against Mr. Jefferson, you are voting for federal tax dollars to go to private and parochial schools," she said.
To the visible dismay of onlooking education lobbyists, the panel rejected the amendment, 23 to 17. Ms. Roukema and 16 Democrats-including all six black members and two of three Hispanics-voted for it.
Eleven of Mr. Jefferson's supporters also voted against final passage of the bill, as did Representative Dick Armey, Republican of Texas.
Mr. Armey had argued that the bill would not ensure meaningful reform and includes "the standard litany of wish-list programs by the education establishment."
He won only five votes for amendments that would have narrowed permissible uses of funds and given the secretary of education veto power over state and local reform plans.
A third Armey amendment, that would have specified that governors would chair state planning committees, lost on a 25-to-10 party-line vote.
All three proposals follow suggestions made in a Sept. 25 letter from Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, which asked that the bill include as allowable uses of funds only Administration proposals.
Proponents did alter the subcommittee bill to respond to some G.O.P. concerns, by requiring plans to include outcome-based goals, requiring the inclusion of private-school educators in training programs, and mandating progress reports.
But more significant changes were made to appease Democrats, by requiring assessment of progress to include measures other than tests, and by adding a package of provisions related to school finance.
They would require state committees to review their states' finance programs and disparities between districts and report to federal officials; require the Education Department to analyze finance data; and mandate a study of the issue by the National Academy of Sciences.
If the bill is approved by the House, aides said, it would probably be reconciled with a broader bill being developed by Senate Democrats. They broke off talks with the Administration in July and drafted a bill which includes only their own programs, one of which would support innovative local reform efforts and somewhat parallels the House approach.
But House Democrats also plan to draft a more comprehensive bill. Representative Dale E. Kildee, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the subcommittee on elementary, secondary, and vocational education, said he will open hearings on that bill Nov. 7, with the first session devoted to school finance.
"I would hate to think [HR 3320] is our entire response to America 2000," Representative Major R. Owens, Democrat of New York, said.
"It's only a preface," Mr. Kildee responded.
Vol. 11, Issue 08, Page 25