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Unanswered Questions Noted at Hearing on Voucher Proposal

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The House has begun moving the Congressional debate on school vouchers from rhetoric to specific proposals for a federal role. But the bill that was the subject of a recent hearing is still rather skimpy on details.

The subject of last month's hearing of the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth, and Families was HR 1640, which would create a program aiming to provide low-income parents with federal funds to send their children to the public, private, or religious school of their choice.

"Our children need the opportunity to pursue a good education," said Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla, a co-sponsor of the bill. "If this educational opportunity is outside their school district, they should have the chance to take advantage of it."

But Democrats--and some Republicans, including Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham, R-Calif., the chairman of the subcommittee, and Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the full House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee--raised questions about the constitutional propriety of using tax dollars for religious schools and about whether federal sponsorship of such a program is good public policy.

"It's a good idea what you're doing, but I also have lots of serious questions," Mr. Cunningham, who chaired the hearing, told the sponsors of HR 1640.

A Longstanding Debate

Voucher measures, which have been defeated repeatedly in Congress over the past several years, have nonetheless grown in popularity among both Democrats and Republicans. (See Education Week, 3/16/94.)

State legislatures in Ohio and Wisconsin, meanwhile, passed bills late last month to create or expand voucher programs. (See related story.)

As the G.O.P. claimed control of Congress earlier this year, observers speculated that the new majority would be able to pass some sort of voucher bill. HR 1640, and its companion measure in the Senate, S 618, represent the latest foray into that arena.

Other members are said to be working on their own voucher bills, as well as a plan for the District of Columbia's school system that may include vouchers. (See related(See Education Week, 5/24/95.)

HR 1640, the proposed "low-income school choice demonstration act," would authorize $30 million to pay for between 10 and 20 demonstration programs. Mr. Riggs said he will propose that appropriators include the program in their fiscal 1996 spending bill, and that they reduce spending for the Title I compensatory-education program to pay for it.

States, school districts, other public agencies, or a consortium of public and private nonprofit organizations would be eligible to apply for the demonstration grants, according to the bill. It would require those "eligible entities" to describe how schools and students would be selected for participation and how programs would be administered.

According to the bill, "any public or private school, including a private sectarian school or a public charter school" would be eligible.

Participating agencies and groups would provide parents with "education certificates" equal to "an amount that provides to the recipient the maximum degree of choice." The bill does not specify how children would be selected, but states that one criteria would be low-income status, as demonstrated by qualification for free or reduced-price school lunches.

The bill does not propose criteria for selecting schools, set a minimum number of schools needed to operate a program, explain how grant amounts would be set, or specify whether programs would include transportation.

'No Details'

Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, noted that the bill leaves many questions unanswered.

"The devil is in the details, and there are no details in this bill," he said. "This bill is more like a greeting card. It's a concept."

Mr. Riggs countered that the legislation is "broadly drafted" to "encourage flexibility and innovation."

Chairman Goodling's criticism could prove to be the most damaging. The former school board member and school superintendent has long expressed opposition to a federal voucher program.

At the hearing, he noted that numerous states were considering school-choice plans, some of which would include private schools. He argued that federal involvement in promoting choice would lead to Washington's intervention in the affairs of such schools.

"This is a local-community issue, not one for the federal government," Mr. Goodling said.

Mr. Goodling also attacked arguments from voucher proponents that the public schools will not improve without competition from private schools.

Comparisons between public and private schools can only be made, he said, "if all schools must take and educate all students."

Since HR 1640 does not say whether participating schools would have to accept all comers, critics said it could allow schools to take public money while limiting admissions to a select group.

Mr. Goodling also said that the plan would only help low-income parents if it paid full tuition and transportation costs.

Mr. Weldon said the average voucher would probably be worth about $3,000, which critics said would fall far short of the total cost of attending many private schools.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average tuition in Catholic schools in the 1992-93 school year was $3,000 for secondary schools and $1,300 for elementary schools. The averages were $4,100 and $2,300 for other religious schools and $8,100 and $3,900 for non-sectarian private schools.

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