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Prospects Improve for Voucher Proposals in Congress

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Private-school-voucher proposals, which could never overcome stiff opposition when the Democrats controlled Congress, may now have a new lease on life.

At least three federal voucher initiatives are in the works or have been proposed in recent weeks. Analysts say such plans face better prospects because of the power shift in Congress.

"With this new Republican Congress, things that weren't possible six months ago are incredibly possible now," said Allyson Tucker, the manager of the Heritage Foundation's center for educational law and policy.

Ms. Tucker is working with Rep. J.C. Watts, a freshman Republican from Oklahoma, to draft legislation that would turn 20 percent of the funding earmarked for the Title I remedial-education program into vouchers for low-income families.

Such a change would be a radical revision to a major federal education program that was reauthorized only last year. But radical changes hardly seem out of the question in the 104th Congress, Ms. Tucker said.

A draft of the proposal says that "poor children should be able to escape violent, crime-ridden schools and instead attend schools that their parents feel provide the best learning environment for that individual child."

Other proposals on the table or in the works include a pilot voucher program for the District of Columbia schools and a $30 million school-choice demonstration program for low-income families.

Last week, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said he was working on a plan to establish a pilot voucher program for the District of Columbia that would be modeled on Milwaukee's private-school-choice initiative, which gives a limited number of low-income students vouchers for tuition at nonsectarian private schools.

The proposal comes amid debate over various schemes under which Congress might reassert control over local affairs in the financially troubled capital city. A House subcommittee last week approved a bill that would create a financial-control board with power over spending by Washington's city government, including its school system.

"We would hope that some very dramatic, positive legislation for the District [of Columbia] would be included in the appropriations bill in June" to "help improve educational opportunities" in the city, Mr. Gingrich said at a news conference last week.

The Speaker said he has asked Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis., and State Rep. Annette (Polly) Williams of Wisconsin to help draft the voucher program. Ms. Williams, a Democrat from Milwaukee, was the chief sponsor in the Wisconsin legislature of the Milwaukee choice program.

"He asked if I would help, and I said I would be more than happy to work with him and Mayor [Marion S.] Barry and let them know what we did here," Ms. Williams said in an interview.

Senators Try Again

On March 24, meanwhile, two senators reintroduced a bill that would authorize $30 million a year for as many as 20 choice demonstration projects nationwide.

States, school districts, or private groups could apply to the U.S. Secretary of Education for grants to provide education vouchers to low-income parents, who could use the money to send their child to any public or private school, including religious schools.

The measure does not specify the amount of the vouchers, but participation would be limited to children who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.

The proposed "low-income school-choice demonstration act" is being sponsored by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., and Sen. Daniel R. Coats, R-Ind.

Similar measures have been rejected in Congress many times in the past five years. Most recently, a proposal to establish a demonstration program was defeated by the Senate last year by a vote of 52 to 41, when it was offered as an amendment to the bill that reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Senator Lieberman said at a news conference that he hoped some Democratic lawmakers would drop their traditional opposition to voucher plans.

"This is another way for the Democratic Party to say that we are not wedded to the status quo," he said.

Church-State Concerns

Advocates of strict separation of church and state say they believe that any federal voucher program that includes religious schools would violate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

"No tax dollars may be directed into the coffers of private religious schools," said Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

But sponsors of voucher plans that would include religious schools are not deterred by threats of legal challenges. They seem more willing to put the programs in place and let the courts decide their constitutionality.

Policy analysts say the renewed interest in vouchers in Congress is being fueled by activity in the states. (See Education Week, 3/15/95.)

Perhaps a half-dozen state legislatures are giving serious consideration to voucher programs this year, said Chester E. Finn Jr., a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former assistant secretary of education.

"I do think there is a climate change of sorts," he said. However, he questioned whether any of the specific proposals being talked about in Congress will actually pass. What is more likely from Congress is a block-grant program for education that would allow states to use some of their money for vouchers, he said.

"It is very likely that if you had a block grant, among the allowable uses of the money would be for the state to let money follow a child to any kind of school the state wanted to include in the program," Mr. Finn said.

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