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Local Officials May Help Decide D.C. Voucher Issue

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Washington

House and Senate Republicans may try to end the impasse over a $42 million federal voucher plan for needy students in the District of Columbia by letting local officials help decide the issue.

A conference committee seeking to reconcile House and Senate appropriations bills for the capital city has been deadlocked for more than a month over the voucher plan, which is part of a broad education-reform package included in the House bill. The bill would give low-income students here up to $3,000 in federal and private scholarships to attend the public or private schools of their choice. (See Education Week, Nov. 29, 1995.)

The dispute, which has been closely watched by activists in the national debate over school choice, has pitted Democrats and some key Republican senators against House Republicans, who say the bill will not pass the House without the voucher provisions.

"Our main concern is that the federal government should not be imposing vouchers," said Erik Smulson, the press secretary for Sen. James Jeffords, R-Vt., the chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the District of Columbia.

Mr. Smulson said aides are discussing proposals that could allow local officials to accept or reject the scholarship program.

"We're looking for flexibility to give D.C. officials a chance to weigh in on this," he said.

"There are discussions under way to find something that he [Mr. Jeffords] could stomach," said Kevin Kennedy, the press secretary for Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis., the lead author of the reform plan.

National Impact

Most of Washington's local officials strongly oppose any choice plan that includes private schools. Karen Shook, the president of the District of Columbia school board, said last week that she was unaware of the new developments, but that she was mostly concerned that the impasse over the voucher plan has held the city's budget hostage.

"I can't support vouchers, but I support the discussion," she said. "Let's have the debate, but don't tie it to our appropriation."

While it would affect only one school district, the voucher debate is more than a local issue. .

"If this goes through at the federal level, you will see the wheels turn all across the country," said Jim Hirni, an education research assistant for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative, Washington-based think tank. "Some state legislatures will jump on the bandwagon right away."

And if the voucher plan fails, "it will slow the statewide movement," Mr. Hirni added.

"Our fear is that if it passes, it would be a lot easier leap to do it for other federal choice programs," said Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the National Education Association.

Sen. Jeffords and other conferees have already agreed to support the other education-reform initiatives in the House bill, including charter schools and a process for setting higher academic standards. (See Education Week, Nov. 15, 1995.)

Shortly before Christmas, the conference committee twice drafted compromises that would have allowed the spending bill to move forward. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., a crucial supporter of the voucher plan, reportedly agreed to remove all the school-reform provisions from the bill or allow the Senate to vote separately on the scholarships. But each proposal was scuttled by conservative House Republicans eager to retain the voucher plan.

"You must do something to get education going again in this city," said Art Jutton, the legislative director for Rep. James T. Walsh, R-N.Y., the chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee on the District of Columbia.

A stopgap spending bill allowing the city government to operate on local funds expired last week, and a new one was approved, extending spending authority through Jan. 25.

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