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Deadlock Over D.C. Voucher Proposal Threatens City Budget

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Members of Congress are so at odds over a proposal to give tuition vouchers to District of Columbia schoolchildren that the deadlock could prevent passage of a budget bill for the nation's capital.

House and Senate leaders last week called off a scheduled conference-committee meeting on the District of Columbia appropriations bill because they could not reconcile their differences on the voucher plan and a handful of other controversial provisions. The impasse threatened passage of the entire appropriations bill, which contains a broad package of school reforms that have been approved by both sides. (See Education Week, Nov. 15, 1995.)

A stopgap spending plan for the District of Columbia as well as some federal agencies, including the Department of Education, expires Dec. 15. (See related story.)

The House negotiators continued last week to insist that the budget bill contain a plan to provide low-income children in the District of Columbia with federally funded "education scholarships" of up to $4,000 for use at public or private schools. They argued that its inclusion had been key in persuading House Republicans to approve that chamber's version of the appropriations bill.

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., has adamantly supported the plan and reportedly directed House negotiators to go to great lengths to keep it in the bill.

But senators reiterated their opposition, and warned that the bill would be subject to a filibuster on the Senate floor if the voucher plan is included. A Dec. 5 letter signed by more than 30 senators described the scholarship proposal as "an unprecedented step that we do not believe should be taken."

Referring to proposed cuts in federal education programs, the letter said "it is incongruous for Congress, on one hand, to propose cutting publicly accountable education funding by 22 percent, while on the other hand establishing a program that provides scarce federal dollars to private and religious schools that are largely unaccountable to the public."

`As Big as It Gets'

The five senators who are members of the House-Senate conference committee charged with hammering out differences on the budget bill did not sign the letter, but all have expressed some degree of opposition to the voucher plan.

"This is not just a tiny District of Columbia issue," Julie A. Segal, the legislative counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in an interview last week. "This is federal legislation for school vouchers. This is as big as it gets."

The National Coalition for Public Education, which consists of more than 40 education, civil-liberties, civil-rights, and religious groups, is spearheading opposition to the voucher plan.

Officials of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian advocacy group, said last week that it had persuaded Gov. George V. Voinovich of Ohio and Mayor John Norquist of Milwaukee to call Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., the highest-ranking Senate conferee and a voucher opponent, to praise the voucher laws passed by their respective states.

House and Senate leaders also remained divided last week over provisions in the House bill that would block the city from paying for abortions with federal funds.

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