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D.C. Budget Bill Includes School Voucher Plan

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Washington

Needy students in the District of Columbia could get up to $3,000 in federal funds to pay tuition at public or private schools of their choice under a package of proposals approved by the House last week.

The "education scholarships" are just the most controversial piece of a wide-ranging school-reform initiative that the House voted 241-177 to attach to its 1996 appropriations bill for the District of Colum- bia. The plan would make the capital city's troubled school system a laboratory for a long list of reform ideas--with an emphasis on choice, charter schools, and academic standards--and wrest a great deal of authority from its school board.

The floor debate was heated, as Democrats said the proposal violates the right of the city's residents to run their own schools--at the same time Republicans are decrying federal interference in local educational matters.

"The children of D.C. would be guinea pigs of the radical right," said Rep. Major R. Owens, D-N.Y., calling the voucher plan a "precedent that would be used around the country."

Proponents--led by Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis., who has worked for several months on the initiative--said their aim is to improve a failing school system for the benefit of the city's children.

"This is about whether you are for unions and bureaucracies or for the poorest kids in the worst schools having the same opportunity as [President Clinton]," said Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.

The House passed the spending bill 224-191. A conference committee could begin work this week on reconciling it with the companion Senate bill, which contains no comparable reform package but would set up an oversight panel that would effectively run Washington's public schools. (See Education Week, Sept. 27, 1995.)

The House bill would limit the city's total spending to about $4.87 billion, $256 million less than recommended by a control board Congress set up to oversee the city's finances. It would provide $712 million in federal funds, including $97.5 million earmarked for school programs.

Of that total, $42 million would pay for tuition scholarships of up to $3,000, as well as smaller scholarhips to pay for extracurricular programs and transportation, for students whose family incomes were no more than 185 percent of the federal poverty level. It would be the first time federal funds were used for a voucher plan.

A new nonprofit organization would administer the program and also seek private contributions. One member of its board would be appointed by the city's mayor; six would be city residents appointed by the president from among nominees forwarded by congressional leaders.

Fight Predicted

The school package would also:

  • Authorize five local universities, as well as the school board, to approve applications to set up publicly funded charter schools.
  • Require the local superintendent to submit a long-term reform plan to Congress by Feb. 1.
  • Create a "world-class-schools panel" to draft a core curriculum, achievement standards, and an assessment plan that allows comparisons among schools.
  • Create a nonprofit corporation to run a school-technology program, a school-to-work transition program, and a professional-development program. The bill would authorize $6 million to $7 million per year in federal funds, but the corporation would be required to seek private contributions, and federal aid would end after 1998.
  • Require the school system to implement such policies as assessment-based "rewards and sanctions for individual schools" and "performance-based evaluation of principals and teachers."
  • Authorize $2 million per year for a facilities-repair program to be run by the federal General Services Administration.
  • Increase the amount of aid the city can receive under the Even Start family-literacy program.

Despite the enormous breadth of the reform plan, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city's nonvoting congressional delegate, said in an interview that the voucher proposal is the only element she opposes.

"I warned that this would force the biggest fight anyone had ever seen," she said, predicting that the provision could cause the Clinton administration to withhold its support. "This could stop a very good bill from becoming reality."

In a letter to lawmakers last week, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley also focused his criticism on the voucher plan, arguing that it would drain resources from the public schools.

National observers agree that the proposal has implications beyond the District of Columbia.

"We view this as a milestone in the national movement for school choice," said Clint Bolick, the litigation director for the Instiute for Justice, a Washington-based, conservative public-interest law firm.

Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, promised that the Washington-based advocacy group would mount a legal challenge.

NEA Charter

During floor debate, the House defeated 213-210 an amendment that would have ended the property-tax exemption granted to the National Education Association in a 1906 congressional charter.

The exemption saves the NEA about $1.6 million a year, but opponents noted that since the city's budget is capped under the bill, lifting the exemption would give it no extra spending power. They also argued that it would be unfair to single out the union without examining the other 26 organizations with similar charters.

"This is mean-spirited," said Rep. Julian C. Dixon, D-Calif. "The fact is, you don't like the philosophy of the NEA."

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