Senate Rejects Private-School Choice Proposal
The Senate last week decisively rejected a proposal to allow low-income parents to use federal funds to send their children to private schools.
The 57-to-36 vote, which fell largely along party lines, came during debate on a Democratic education-reform bill. The outcome was a major defeat for the Bush Administration, which had lobbied hard for the $30-million choice program that included religions schools.
The wide margin against the amendment indicates that lawmakers and Administration officials overestimated support for choice. The vote significantly reduces the likelihood that the bill that emerges from the Congress will include private-school choice, observers said.
Six Republicans voted against the amendment, while three Democrats voted for it.
Further partisan warfare was averted with a compromise on two other elements of the Administration's education plan: a program for the creation of innovative "new American schools," and a provision that would allow the secretary of education to waive regulations.
The Senate defeated an amendment offered by Senator Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina, that would have urged the U.S. Supreme Court to use a pending case involving the constitutionality of prayers at graduation ceremonies to overrule past precedents and allow "voluntary prayer, Bible reading, or religions meetings" in public schools. The "sense of the Senate" amendment was defeated 55 to 38. The Senate was scheduled to debate additional amendments late last week and early this week, and to vote on those amendments and on final passage of S 2 on Jan. 28.
While the $200-million choice program Mr. Bush originally proposed was to reward districts that adopted plans including private schools, the plan offered last week on behalf of the Administration by Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah directed aid to parents in participating districts.
"Let's give low-income parents at least one additional weapon to use for school improvement," said Mr. Hatch, the ranking Republican on the Labor and Human Resources Committee. "Let's give them the ability to walk out."
The funds would have been divided among six areas, chosen by the secretary, where school districts applied in cooperation with a "sufficient number" of private schools to establish a demonstration project. Only districts serving many poor children would be eligible, and only children eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches could participate.
Parents would receive vouchers equal to tuition at the chosen school, and could receive additional funds to pay transportation costs. They could draw no more than the average per pupil expenditure in the school district where their children would otherwise have been enrolled, however.
'Nose Under the Tent'
Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander has declined to say whether private schools participating in the Administration's proposed program would have to accept regulations that bind public schools, or whether they would be able to maintain admissions standards. But the Hatch amendment specifically provided that participating schools could set such standards as long as they were not more stringent for voucher children than for others.
The amendment said that choice plans could not impede desegregation efforts and that the proposal would not "affect the requirements" of the main federal special-education law.
The proposal left it to local consortia to propose in their applications how private schools would be enlisted, how the number of available slots in each school would be determined, and what would happen when the number of slots in a particular school or funding was insufficient for all eligible children.
In addition to arguing that the amendment would help poor children escape substandard schools, proponents urged that the choice concept be given a trial to determine its costs and benefits.
"Such a demonstration program would help provide definitive answers to the questions that have been raised about choice," said Senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas, such as whether competition "will cause public schools to become more responsive and make needed improvements" or if "such improvements become virtually impossible as talented students leave those with the greatest needs behind."
"Without testing the concept, we will never get beyond arguments over the perceived benefits of choice," said Ms. Kassebaum, the ranking Republican on the education subcommittee.
But opponents said scarce funds should be focused on improving public schools, and that the proposal would set a dangerous precedent. "It's the nose-under-the-tent amendment," said Senator Howard M. Metzenbaum, Democrat of Ohio.
"I fear it is the first step toward abandonment of oar system of free, public education," he added.
$850 Million for Reform Projects
While only $100 million was appropriated for the current fiscal year, S 2 would authorize $850 million per year for grants to states and individual schools for developing and implementing reform plans drafted by committees.
States could use their first-year funds for planning, teacher training, or state-level public-school choice plans. Under the original bill, states would pass most funds to districts in later years, but could apply to use 10 percent for choice or training.
The compromise "new American schools" amendment, which was approved unanimously, allows states to apply to use an additional 15 percent for creation of innovative schools. While the Administration plan would have made private entities eligible for new-schools grants, the compromise limits the program to public schools. It also provides that state officials choose grant recipients, not the secretary of education.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee and the primary sponsors 2, charged during a heated floor speech that the Administration might use the grants to aid Republican Congressional candidates this fall. However, the original amendment, offered by Senator Thad Cochran, Republican of Mississippi, stated that no awards would be made until 1993.
A companion House hill, HR 3320, which would authorize $700 million to implement reform plans in states and school districts, lists "new American schools" as one of many allowable activities, as well as choice plans that could include or exclude private schools.
House Action Expected
The House language represents a deal struck between the Administration and Representative William D. Ford, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. Mr. Ford agreed to include it as long as the Administration vowed not to back a House amendment like the one offered by Mr. Hatch, which Mr. Ford feared could pass in both chambers.
The Ford provision is now the only route to funding for private school choice, which would have to be approved over other options by panels dominated by educators. And Democrats could kill the provision when the bill goes to conference.
The regulatory-waiver compromise, offered by Senator Mark O. Hatfield, Republican of Oregon, allows districts to submit plans for using their federal funds in ways that would otherwise be prohibited. The plans would have to include performance targets with goals for the populations served by the programs whose rules would be waived.
The secretary could not waive rules related to civil rights or special education, or those preventing the use of federal money to supplant state and local expenditures.
The secretary would select six states that have made efforts to reduce state-level education regulation and approve as many as 50 waivers in each state.