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Revolutionary School-Voucher Measure Falls Short in Ill. House

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Republican leaders in the Illinois House found themselves unable to muster enough votes to pass a ground-breaking school-voucher bill after two hours of tense debate late last week.

Backers of the plan found themselves 11 votes short of a majority, a gap that observers said almost certainly spells doom for the plan. The bill, which passed the Senate earlier this spring, would provide $2,500 vouchers to some Chicago parents to help pay for tuition at private and parochial schools.

Under House rules, the bill remained alive and could come up again before the session ends this week. But even if opponents of the bill were not celebrating, they were breathing a sigh of relief.

"This is definitely a victory," said Barbara Zimny of Calumet City, a member of Advocates Behind Legal Education. The Chicago group, which works for the rights of students with disabilities, was one of many groups leery of where the pilot program might lead.

"Private schools can legally pick and choose which children they will accept," Ms. Zimny said, "and we felt very strongly that the supporters of the program meant for it to go statewide."

"There is some feeling that it could get called up again and the leaders could twist some arms," said Jackie Gallagher, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Teachers Union, which opposed the bill.

But Rep. Mary Lou Cowlishaw, the Republican chairwoman of the House education committee, who voted against the bill, said it is all but dead for this session.

A Test Case

Illinois was on the verge of becoming the first state to launch a voucher program that would test the constitutional questions that public vouchers for parochial schools would be certain to spark.

Under an amendment passed shortly before the House vote, lawmakers agreed that the primarily Hispanic neighborhoods of Pilsen and Little Village in Chicago would be the testing ground for the pilot program. The bill would shift up to $5 million from the Chicago school district's budget to the vouchers, which could be used by parents of both public and private school students.

After the bill's swift move through the Republican Senate, its prospects have become murky. Beyond some key Republicans, members of the G.O.P.-controlled House have not been enthusiastic about pushing the bill.

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