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Buoyed by Senate Vote, Ford Backs Off Deal on School Choice

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WASHINGTON--In the wake of the Senate's rejection of private-school vouchers, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee has decided to walk away from a deal with the Bush Administration on school choice.

The move by Representative William D. Ford, Democrat of Michigan, sets the stage for a fight on the issue in the committee and on the House floor, and probably kills any chance for federal aid to private schools this year.

Representative Ford last week introduced a new version of HR 3320, which would provide funds to states and school districts for education-reform plans. Unlike the version approved by the committee in October, the new bill lacks a provision that would permit private-school choice as a component of the reform plans.

In a deal struck with the former White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, Mr. Ford agreed to support that language in exchange for an Administration promise to oppose efforts to amend the bill on the House floor to guarantee funding for private-school choice. The chairman feared that such a provision would be approved in both the House and Senate. (See Education Week, Nov. 6, 1991.)

But when the Senate considered S 2, its counterpart to HR 3320, it rejected a plan to give $30 million in vouchers to poor parents in six communities for use at either public or private schools. The only reference to choice in S 2 is language allowing state officials to reserve some funds for public-school programs. (See Education Week, Feb. 5, 1992.)

The 57-to-36 vote on the choice amendment, which the Bush Administration lobbied hard for, was not as close as expected. House aides said it heavily influenced Mr. Ford's decision to back away from the deal he made with Mr. Sununu.

A Fall-Back Position

"That vote indicated that support for a pilot program isn't what some people thought,'' one Democratic aide said, adding: "If [Mr. Ford] loses on the floor, now there's the Senate language to fall back on'' when differences are reconciled in a House-Senate conference.

In addition, aides said, panel members believed it was inevitable that members on both sides of the private-school choice debate would try to amend the bill.

The committee plans to take up the issue within a month, after finishing work on the Higher Education Act. Panel members will also debate national-testing provisions that were added to S 2. (See Education Week, Feb. 26, 1992.)

When the committee first debated choice, it appeared that a bipartisan majority would favor support of choice plans limited to public schools. But aides said the outcome is hard to predict.

"Once the Senate took that decisive vote, the dynamics changed,'' a Democratic aide said. "Some members supported public-school choice only as an alternative to something that goes beyond public-school choice.''

Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander last week issued a statement saying that President Bush would not approve a "business as usual bill.'' But he did not specifically address the provisions of HR 3320 or say whether Mr. Bush would veto the Congress' final product solely if it lacks a private-school choice provision.

Both S 2 and HR 3320 would provide funds for innovative schools in a plan similar to one of the Administration's proposals. In addition, the Senate bill includes testing and regulatory flexibility provisions supported by the Administration.

School Boards' Concerns

The other significant change in the new version of HR 3320 addresses concerns of the National School Boards Association.

The bill calls for district-level committees to draft reform plans. The N.S.B.A. argued that this usurps school boards' authority.

The new version would allow local boards to alter the committee plans, rather than just reject or accept them. It also encourages cooperation by giving funding preference to plans that are "broadly supported within their communities.''

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