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Conferees at Impasse Over Tuition Vouchers for D.C. Schools

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Washington

Congressional leaders have agreed to most of a broad plan to reform the District of Columbia schools, but remained at an impasse last week over a tuition-voucher proposal championed by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.

The proposed education reforms are to be included in legislation that will set the 1996 budget for the capital city and its public school system. The House and Senate have each passed separate appropriations bills, with the House version calling for far more drastic school reforms.

In meetings of a House-Senate conference committee held earlier this month, senators generally appeared receptive to the House plans to overhaul the funding, governance, and maintenance of the school system. They accepted, largely intact, House proposals to establish a residential school, withhold the welfare benefits of parents who fail to attend conferences with teachers, and require the school system to submit reform plans to Congress.

The House, in turn, accepted a Senate proposal to form a seven-member commission, composed of local and federal appointees, to help run the school district.

The stated purposes of all these measures are to make Washington's public schools a national showcase and to help the financially troubled city operate more efficiently.

Attempts to reach an overall agreement were stymied, however, as Senate members of the conference committee refused to accept the House plan to provide low-income children in the city with federally financed "education scholarships" for use at public, religious, or nonsectarian private schools. (See Education Week, Nov. 15, 1995.)

The senators also reacted coolly to a House proposal to let private institutions set up publicly funded charter schools.

"The differences we have are few, but the ones that we have are significant," Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., said as the conference began.

Filibuster Threat

At the Nov. 17 conference-committee meeting, Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., the chairman of the Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over District of Columbia appropriations, warned that at least 40 senators oppose the voucher proposal and that the District of Columbia budget bill will be stalled by a filibuster if the plan is included.

"If we all work together, we can make dramatic improvements in the city's education system," Mr. Jeffords said in urging the conferees to drop the measure.

The House members, meanwhile, stood by the voucher proposal, which their chamber had passed at Mr. Gingrich's urging. They argued that it would be a selling point in persuading the more conservative House to approve a higher city budget.

Senator Jeffords acknowledged that obtaining a compromise on the voucher plan would likely require discussions with Speaker Gingrich himself.

So far, House negotiators have offered, as their chief concession, to increase the maximum scholarship from $3,000 to $4,000, thereby putting the tuition of more nonsectarian private schools within reach.

"The concern is that, if you only give them $3,000, it drives them to the cheaper schools, which are parochial," said John Simmons, a legislative assistant to Rep. James T. Walsh, R-N.Y., the chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee on the District of Columbia.

Although a Congressional Research Service analysis of the House voucher proposal concluded that it would pass constitutional muster, some senators and civil-liberties organizations have predicted that the measure would be struck down by the courts as an illegal entanglement of church and state under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

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