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Private-School, Religious Groups Join To Back President's Choice Proposal

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WASHINGTON--An unusually diverse alliance of private-education and religious groups that banded together to support a Bush Administration proposal on private-school choice will continue to promote the idea, despite the Senate's defeat of the proposal last week.

The Senate voted 57 to 36 on Jan. 23 against a plan to fund a federal private-school choice demonstration project for low-income families. The plan was a Republican amendment to S 2, the Democratic-backed school-reform bill that President Bush has criticized as promoting 'business as usual." (See related story, page 1 .)

In addition to several Roman Catholic religious and education organizations that have long favored private-school choice, the lobbying coalition includes some private-school groups that, until now, have not forcefully supported federal aid for a choice plan that included private schools.

"This does represent an evolution over 10 to 12 years in our board's thinking on what constitutes an acceptable choice proposal," said John W. Sanders, the vice president of the National Association of Independent Schools, which represents most of the nation's leading independent day and boarding schools.

The N.A.I.S. has previously supported school choice generally, but has shied away from the more contentious idea of allowing the government to give money to parents who enroll their children in private schools.

The choice amendment introduced by Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, "seems like a proper experimental vehicle" because it would provide aid to low-income families to send their children to private schools, Mr. Sanders said before the Senate took its vote late last week.

Twenty nonprofit religious and education groups formed the National Coalition for Improvement and Reform of American Education this month to support the private school choice amendment to S 2.

The groups represent virtually all segments of private education, including independent, military, Montessori, Catholic, Jewish, Lutheran, Episcopal, Seventh Day Adventist, Quaker, and evangelical Christian schools.

'Diversity of Support'

"We feel the coalition allows us to show the diversity of support among ,the private-school associations," said Joyce McCray, the executive director of the Council for American Private Education, the umbrella organization representing most of the private-school groups.

Despite the defeat of the choice amendment, the coalition will stay in place for now to promote other private-school choice proposals, said Greg Kubiak, the government affairs director for CAPE.

The potential political impact of the new coalition was underscored last week when several private-education leaders were called to the White House to meet with key Administration officials, just as the Senate was beginning debate on the education-reform bill.

Representatives of the coalition met on Jan. 21 with, among other Administration officials, Samuel K. Skinner, the White House chief of staff; Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander; and Roger Porter, the President's domestic-policy chief.

"This was a fairly straightforward meeting to clear up any questions we had about details in the proposal," said Mr. Sanders of the N.A.I.S., who attended. "We wanted to know how seriously committed the Administration was" to the private school choice demonstration project.

"There is no point to having the private-school community go out on a limb if we are not getting support" from the Administration, he added.

Letters Sent

The coalition has sent a letter and position paper to each senator this month that seek to answer criticisms that have been leveled against the idea of federally funded private-school choice.

"If there is anywhere in which the public system is failing and the private schools are succeeding, it is in the highly concentrated low-income communities," the position paper says in support of the proposed demonstration program, which would provide a total of $30 million for up to six projects in which low-income families would get certificates to send their children to private schools.

In addition to CAPE and the N.A.I.S., the coalition includes: Agudath Israel of America, the American Montessori Society, the Association of Military Colleges and Schools of the United States, Catholic Daughters of America, Catholic Golden Age, and Christian Schools International.

Also, the Evangelical Lutheran Education Association, the Friends Council on Education, the Institute for Independent Education, the Jesuit Secondary Education Association, the Knights of Columbus, the National Association of Episcopal Schools, and the National Association of Private Schools for Exceptional Children.

Also, the National Catholic Educational Association, the National Council on Catholic Women, the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools, the Seventh Day Adventist Office of Education, and the United States Catholic Conference.

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