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Unable To Sell Congress on Vouchers, Bush Says Campaign Will Tout Choice

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WASHINGTON--President Bush has served notice that he will try to make school choice an issue in the Presidential campaign.

At a July 21 meeting at Archbishop Ryan High School in Philadelphia, Mr. Bush conceded that the Congress is unlikely to approve his proposal for an experimental $500-million voucher plan.

"But I can guarantee you I am going to clearly take this case to the American people this fall, get it in focus, and have that a part of the ingredient upon which people vote,'' the President said at the Roman Catholic school.

President Bush apparently intends to use the plan, which would provide low- and middle-income families with federal vouchers they could spend at public or private schools, to buttress a claim to be the candidate of "family values.''

"The choices in this election are clear,'' Mr. Bush said at a New Jersey church shortly after the Philadelphia appearance. "On one side, the advocates of the liberal agenda; on the other side are you and I and those values of family we all share.''

Touting his choice proposal and Republicans' successful fight to make religious institutions eligible for funding under the 1990 federal child-care law, he said that unnamed opponents "want to tighten the monopoly on our kids' education.''

"They want public schools to hand out birth-control pills and devices to teenaged kids,'' the President continued. "And they believe it's no business of the parents and that it's strictly a matter between our children and the government.''

"They even encourage kids to hire lawyers and haul their parents into court,'' he said.

Mr. Bush apparently was referring to school-based clinics supported in Arkansas by Gov. Bill Clinton, the Democratic Presidential nominee, and to scholarly articles written by the candidate's wife, Hillary, a lawyer, supporting a higher legal standing for children in some cases.

Mr. Clinton is opposed to publicly funded choice plans that include private schools.

Plan Detailed

The President's school-choice plan, which was announced by Mr. Bush in June and formally submitted to the Congress last month, offers state and local officials a tempting but risky proposition: the prospect of substantially increased federal aid for their educational systems, combined with the possibility that the public schools would lose some of that money, and many of their students, to private schools.

Under the proposed "G.I. bill for children,'' a state or locality could apply for funding to provide $1,000 scholarships to families meeting certain income requirements.

In his appearance at the Catholic school, Mr. Bush reassured a questioner that "the middle class would be covered'' and that the program "would have no means-testing.'' But the bill submitted to the Congress in fact contains income restrictions that would vary geographically. The maximum eligible family income could not exceed the state or national median, whichever was higher.

The Education Department would select grantees based on the breadth of choice their plans offered both to scholarship students and other students, the proportion of low-income students who would benefit, and the amount of additional state and local funding that would be provided.

Each eligible child would receive an annual scholarship of $1,000 as long as he or she continued to live in the "project area'' and stayed in school, unless the family's income exceeded the previous year's maximum by 20 percent.

The family could give the scholarship money to any "lawfully operating'' public or private school in the project area. To qualify, a choice program would have to include all interested private schools, including religious schools.

Parents could also decide to spend up to half the funds on "supplemental educational services,'' such as after-school tutoring.

At a White House press briefing after Mr. Bush's announcement of the plan, Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander acknowledged that the $500 million the Administration proposes to spend would fund scholarships for only a fraction of eligible children. But he said the plan was intended to demonstrate the value of choice, adding that he hoped it would lead to a "consensus'' on "a new way for the federal government to help improve schools.''

Bonus for Public Schools?

Mr. Alexander also predicted that most parents would prefer nearby schools, and that public schools would fight to retain money and students by offering new services. "All this money is available to public schools if public schools can attract the students,'' he said.

But the challenge appears to be one that public-school advocates are unwilling to take. While private-school groups praised the proposal, representatives of public-school organizations condemned it as an election-year ploy that would redirect scarce resources and motivated students from public schools.

Critics noted that public schools must educate all children who enroll.

"It's not competition when you've got one system that has to take all students and has to educate them and another system that can take the people they want and kick out the kids they don't want,'' Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a televised debate with Mr. Alexander on the issue.

The Bush legislation would require participating schools to comply with federal antidiscrimination laws, but private schools could maintain academic and disciplinary standards.

Is $1,000 Enough?

Critics also said $1,000 would not pay tuition at most private schools, and would therefore primarily help middle-income families that could afford the rest of the bill. But Mr. Alexander responded that since the average tuition is about $1,900 at all private schools, and only about $1,400 at Catholic schools, poor families would be able to find schools they could afford.

President Bush and Mr. Alexander also have brushed aside assertions that aid to religious schools would be unconstitutional, arguing that the aid is targeted to families, not to schools. The legislation specifically states that the vouchers are not to be considered aid to schools.

"Accepting students with vouchers does not mean a school must sacrifice school prayer,'' Mr. Bush said in announcing his proposal.

But voucher opponents disagree with that interpretation.

"It appears that the President represents the only branch of government that fails to understand how the Constitution applies to this issue,'' Robert Peck, the legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.

According to Mr. Alexander, a second Bush Administration would make the choice plan a major issue in Congressional debate next year.

"We won't accept an [elementary and secondary education act] unless it includes this,'' he told a group of reporters this summer, referring to the rewrite of major precollegiate-education programs scheduled for 1993.

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