Choice Is Again Issue of Debate On Capitol Hill
On March 3, the House quietly approved a measure that would allow school districts to use federal Chapter 1 dollars to develop and implement parental-choice programs--an idea that has inspired pitched battles in the past.
Most observers agreed last week that the way the proposal interacts with Chapter 1 rules would make it difficult to implement, and they predicted that few, if any, districts would try.
"We're quibbling about nothing; it's semantics and politics,'' said an aide to a key Republican who supported the amendment. "In the real world, it means almost nothing.''
But school-choice opponents fear the precedent that the provision--which applies only to public schools--would set for the use of federal funds, and specifically compensatory-education dollars.
And the vote illustrates how precarious the political balance on the issue is on Capitol Hill.
As the House prepared on March 3 for its third day of debate on HR 6, the massive bill that would reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a senior aide issued a warning call to the offices of Democratic lawmakers, asking school-choice op-ponents to appear on the floor early in the day's deliberations to prevent adoption of a choice amendment.
The opponents never showed up. That left the floor manager of HR 6, Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., in a quandary.
Without rhetorical support and fearful that he might not have the votes to defeat the provision, Mr. Kildee allowed the amendment to pass by a voice vote without demanding a roll call. (See Education Week, March 9, 1994.)
The amendment, sponsored by Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, is a reworked version of proposals that were rejected when the bill was considered at the subcommittee and committee levels.
The version adopted by the House would allow districts to use Chapter 1 funds--combined with other federal, state, local, and private resources--to "develop and implement'' choice programs under which Chapter 1 children could choose among Chapter 1 schools. It does not specify whether they could choose a school in another district.
Parental choice is a "management decision on the local level,'' said John Czwartacki, a spokesman for Mr. Boehner. "This isn't to force choice down anyone's throat.''
The amendment was sufficiently narrow that Mr. Boehner picked up enough Democratic support to convince opponents that they might not prevail.
"It wasn't clear what the vote count was. We hadn't done a whip count,'' said an aide to Mr. Kildee, when asked why the lawmaker decided not to ask for a roll-call vote.
Rep. William D. Ford, D-Mich., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, made a similar calculation in 1992, when the House was considering education-reform legislation drafted as a response to President Bush's America 2000 proposal.
Mr. Ford agreed to insert language allowing grant funds under the bill to be used for choice programs, even those including private schools, in exchange for a promise from the Administration not to back an amendment earmarking funds specifically for private-school choice. He later reneged on the deal when the Senate rejected a voucher plan.
It is unclear how the Boehner amendment might affect what happens in the Senate this year.
A Republican Senate aide said that conservative senators are more likely to propose amendments to fund choice programs that include private schools than to echo Mr. Boehner's plan.
But the inclusion of choice provisions, even disparate ones, in both versions of the bill could increase the likelihood that some mention of choice would survive an eventual House-Senate conference.
Tim Goeglein, a spokesman for Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., a leading choice supporter, said he "is encouraged by the House action.''
Mr. Coats has not developed a specific strategy, he said, but some type of choice proposal will certainly be offered when the Senate takes up its version of the E.S.E.A. legislation this spring.
"There is clearly a rising tide of sentiment on school choice in the Senate,'' Mr. Goeglein said.
He noted that an amendment offered by Mr. Coats to S 1150, the proposed "goals 2000: educate America act,'' garnered 41 votes. The proposal, which would have established a demonstration program funding six choice plans that include private schools, got five more votes than the similar measure the Senate rejected in 1992.
But the aide to Mr. Kildee said that it is far from certain that a choice provision will be included in the bill that is ultimately enacted.
"Nothing's over until it's over in conference,'' the aide said.
Indeed, some sources say opponents are discussing the possibility of using an obscure parliamentary maneuver to strike the Boehner amendment from HR 6 before it clears the House, which could happen this week.
Technically, the House has been debating the bill in the Committee of the Whole, which must report the bill to the House of Representatives. When the bill is reported, any element can be brought up again for a vote.
But uncertainty about the outcome may discourage such an effort.
Setting a Precedent
While the Clinton Administration has supported the concept of parental choice among public schools, said Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith, it opposes the Boehner amendment because it would undercut the central tenet of the Administration's Chapter 1 proposal--targeting federal dollars to schools with the highest concentrations of poverty.
"It's one of these interesting things where two positive goals in effect are somewhat in opposition,'' Mr. Smith said.
The amendment also leaves open the possibility that Chapter 1 money could be used for transportation or administrative costs, he said, which diverges from Chapter 1's current purpose of improving instruction. That precedent bothers others, as well.
"That amendment is trouble,'' said Bruce Hunter, an associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.
However, many observers doubt that the provision would be widely used even if it were enacted.
Edward R. Kealy, the director of federal relations for the National School Boards Association, said it is so ambiguous that "you wonder how useful an option it is.''
The reason it is ambiguous is that it applies only to schools and students included in the Chapter 1 program, and eligibility requirements for that program are relative rather than absolute.
School districts receive Chapter 1 funds based on poverty statistics, and are required to funnel the money to high-poverty schools. But a district can decide how many schools to serve, and can also decide to serve only certain grades. And within schools, students are selected for the program based on how their academic achievement measures up relative to their peers'.
A student receiving Chapter 1 services in one school might not receive them in another Chapter 1 school in the same district. Moreover, students--or even schools--that are eligible one year may not be eligible the next year.
It is also unclear whether the amendment applies to students theoretically eligible for Chapter 1 or those currently served by the program.
The amendment "is just plain sloppily drafted and doesn't clearly explain which kids are eligible and can have money follow them,'' Mr. Hunter said.
Mr. Kealy noted that schools operating schoolwide projects, in which Chapter 1 dollars are used to upgrade the whole school, could use the money to fund transfers for any student--whether educationally disadvantaged or not--under the amendment.
Mr. Czwartacki, the aide to Mr. Boehner, argued that such details could be worked out by districts and schools.
"You could come up with scenarios where it wouldn't work. I could come up with scenarios where it could work,'' he said.
However, noting the logistical difficulties presented by the amendment, many observers contend that its true intention is to score political points.
"I don't think [choice] is going to be a live option in most school districts,'' Mr. Kealy said.
The amendment, he said, "clearly is an attempt to set a precedent and get a foot in the door on the choice issue.''