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Private-School Groups Postpone Quest for Vouchers

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WASHINGTON--Private-school groups have apparently dropped for the time being their active quest for a voucher plan that would use federal funds to help children attend private schools, fearing a high-profile defeat on the issue in the Congress.

Private-school lobbyists are also worried that partisan enmity stirred up by their advocacy of school choice could deny them participation in new education-reform programs, some sources say, and even make it difficult for them to influence next year's reauthorization of most major precollegiate-education programs.

Some private-school advocates are urging Congressional supporters not to propose a voucher program as an amendment when a school-reform bill is considered in the House later this month, according to lobbyists and Congressional aides.

Just five months ago, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee agreed to language allowing choice initiatives that include private schools to be part of local-option reform plans that would be funded by the bill, HR 4323. The chairman, Representative William D. Ford, Democrat of Michigan, said he did so because he feared that a proposal specifically earmarking funds for a private-school-voucher plan would be approved.

But the Senate overwhelmingly rejected a relatively modest demonstration private-school-voucher program when S 2, a companion to HR 4323, was approved in January. (See Education Week, Feb. 5, 1992.)

"When that roll-call was gaveled to a close,'' Greg Kubiak, the government liaison for the Council for American Private Education, said last week, "the same public-school lobbyists and House committee members who were quaking at the idea that private-school choice would be a reality breathed a sigh of relief as they realized they had politics on their side.''

Concerned About Confrontation

Mr. Ford subsequently introduced the current version of HR 4323, which does not include any form of "choice'' as a possible component of state or local reform plans.

Representative Dick Armey, Republican of Texas, plans to propose an amendment in committee and on el14lthe House floor that would require that one-fourth of the funds authorized by the bill be used for school-choice programs including private schools. His amendment would also earmark funds for other Bush Administration proposals, such as "break the mold'' New American Schools, and give the governors and the U.S. Secretary of Education more control over the planning process the bill would set.

While private-school groups have refrained from taking a public position on the Armey amendment, Pat Shortridge, a spokesman for Mr. Armey, confirmed last week that some private-school officials had expressed concerns about a confrontational strategy. "They're not interested in pursuing this issue [choice] this year,'' he said. "They're concerned that it will lose.''

"It doesn't seem to be the most productive use of our resources'' to "make a concerted effort'' for a voucher plan this year, said Sister Catherine McNamee, the president of the National Catholic Educational Association.

"The issue has been pushed to the forefront in a highly partisan context,'' Sister Lourdes Sheehan, the secretary of education for the U.S. Catholic Conference, said. "The decision would be based on what's politically expedient, not on the merits.''

'Just Not the Right Time'

Mr. Kubiak of CAPE, an umbrella organization of private-education groups, said that some private-school officials are also concerned that their aggressive advocacy of the voucher plan--particularly in an election year--has so alienated key Democrats that it could endanger other items on their agenda.

For example, private-school officials have lobbied for seats on state and local panels that would determine the use of grants under both S 2 and HR 4323. Private-school groups are also interested in participating in the "teacher corps'' that would be created by pending higher-education bills, and in the Administration's new-schools plan, should the Congress approve some form of the idea.

During consideration of S 2, Democratic leaders added a provision specifically limiting new-schools funding to public schools.

"We need to be sure Congress doesn't write us out of the landscape of American education,'' Mr. Kubiak said.

"We were blindsided by the partisan nature of the choice debate,'' he said. "It's obvious that, in a political season, forcing people to vote on 'choice' amendments is not going to do a lot to educate the members.''

Several Democratic House aides agreed with Mr. Kubiak's assertion that private schools would be more likely to succeed on other issues if partisan anger over the voucher issue dies down.

Both Sister Sheehan and Sister McNamee said that fear did not influence their decision to put vouchers on the back burner.

But a March 12 letter Sister Sheehan sent to Mr. Ford, indicating that the Catholic Conference would not "continue to participate in any further Congressional debate on the issue of school choice,'' also indicates that the group has turned to other agenda items.

"We thought you would appreciate knowing our views on this important matter at this point of the Congressional debate,'' Sister Sheehan wrote. "We look forward to continuing our discussions with you and the members of your committee on further refining and improving the reform legislation as well as the larger task of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary [Education] Act in the next Congress.''

Private-school officials stressed last week that they were not giving up their quest for a voucher program that would include their institutions.

Sister Sheehan said the Catholic Conference might actively support a new choice bill if "the situation is right.''

"We are not retreating on the issue of choice, but regrouping and refocusing our efforts on educating members [of the Congress] about choice and about private schools,'' Mr. Kubiak said.

"We have not dropped the choice issue,'' Sister McNamee said. "This is just not the right time to mobilize our troops.''

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