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House Backs Vouchers for Private Schools in D.C.

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Needy students in the District of Columbia could get up to $3,000 in federally funded vouchers to help them attend private or parochial schools under a bill passed by the House and headed to the Senate last week.

But the compromise bill would require a scholarship board and the District of Columbia City Council to agree on how to divide a pot of $5 million between the "tuition scholarships" and $1,500 scholarships students could use for extracurricular remedial or enrichment programs. And many local officials are firmly opposed to vouchers for private schools.

"The local government can zero [vouchers] out," said Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., the chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the District of Columbia. "Proponents can say that's momentum, but I don't think so."

The scholarships are one piece of a broad school-reform package included in the $4.9 billion spending bill for the capital city. It would also create an education oversight board, promote charter schools, establish a process for drafting reform plans and setting academic standards, and provide federal aid for rehabilitating school buildings.

The bill languished in a conference committee for weeks, as House Republicans insisted on the voucher provisions and Democrats and some Senate Republicans, led by Mr. Jeffords, refused to accept them. When the House passed the compromise on Jan. 31, with a 211-201 vote, it was opposed primarily by Democrats loathe to vote for any voucher program. The Senate was expected to take up the bill late last week.

"The mayor and I oppose vouchers, but we believe the only way to bring relief to the District is to free its appropriation," Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's non-voting congressional delegate, said in floor debate.

The bill approves a $4.9 billion city budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. It includes a $727 million federal payment, $15 million of which is earmarked for the school-reform package.

A Victory for Whom?

Mr. Jeffords said he agreed to the voucher language only because it allows local officials to make the final decision. But while none of the money may actually go to private schools, GOP lawmakers can now tell their conservative constituents that they passed a voucher package.

"This puts our money where our mouth is," said Rep. James T. Walsh, R-N.Y., the chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee on the District of Columbia.

And some voucher proponents disagree with Mr. Jeffords' contention that the bill is not a major victory for their cause.

"This just adds to the national momentum," said Kevin Teasley, the executive director of the Coalition to Educate America, a private-school-choice advocacy group based in Los Angeles. "It's important because it's in the nation's capital and in the back yard of the national press."

Mr. Teasley brought two District of Columbia mothers to Vermont last week to meet with reporters and pressure Mr. Jeffords to compromise on the voucher issue.

Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said his Washington-based group would file a lawsuit if city officials opt for vouchers. He urged President Clinton to veto the bill because it "it sets a dangerous precedent that vouchers have a role to play in school reform."

Last week, at least three members of the district's 13-person council spoke out publicly in favor of the voucher plan, though others rallied against it. The city's school board passed a resolution in the fall condemning the idea.

"This Congress, despite what our own system is doing to reform, is imposing its values on us," said Karen Shook, the president of the school board. She hopes the city council will reject the voucher idea, but is not sure what will happen.

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