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Clinton Position on Private Vouchers Debated

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Washington

The Clinton administration moved swiftly last week to reassure education lobbyists and the public that its position on vouchers had not changed despite the president's remarks on the subject during his Oct. 6 debate with GOP challenger Bob Dole.

In discussing school choice and the federal role in education during the first of the two 1996 presidential debates, President Clinton said that while he opposes federally funded vouchers of the kind Mr. Dole has proposed, the creation of voucher programs that include private and religious schools is largely a state and local responsibility.

"If you're going to have a private voucher plan, that ought to be determined by states and localities where they're raising and spending most of the money," Mr. Clinton said.

The president repeated that sentiment three times, concluding with specific references to high-profile voucher experiments.

"If a local school district in Cleveland, or anyplace else, wants to have a private school choice plan, like Milwaukee did, let them have at it," he said.

It was the first time Mr. Clinton appeared to suggest that his opposition to vouchers is contingent on their primary source of funding. While Mr. Dole did not pick up on it during the debate, observers began to wonder whether Mr. Clinton had changed his position. Over the years, Mr. Clinton has supported school choice within the public system, but has drawn the line at voucher-style programs that include private schools.

But the White House and Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley insisted last week that there had been no change.

"I talked to the president and I told him I had some questions about the voucher issue, and he told me that there is nothing new in his position," Mr. Riley told reporters last week.

Mr. Riley noted that the president had spoken out against a failed 1993 California ballot initiative that would have installed a statewide voucher program. And he said the administration opposes voucher plans at any level that are unconstitutional or that shift money to private schools and away from public schools.

Several Readings

Nevertheless, Mr. Clinton's remarks were squishy enough to be open to numerous interpretations.

Voucher proponents cheered.

"The Clinton response was extremely significant," said Chester E. Finn Jr., a senior fellow at the Washington office of the Hudson Institute, an Indianapolis-based conservative think tank, and an informal adviser to the Dole campaign. "If the nation's leading Democrat has decided that vouchers are a state and local matter rather than the end of the world as we know it, we've reached a watershed of sorts."

Moreover, proponents noted that the president, while calling studies of the Milwaukee program "ambiguous," did not denounce state and local voucher efforts.

"He didn't say they should go do it. ... But he didn't criticize vouchers in concept or in practice," said Tim Sullivan, the spokesman for the Center for Education Reform, a Washington group that supports vouchers.

Some voucher opponents said they were dismayed, but said they hoped the president himself would clarify his stance on the issue, possibly in the second debate, scheduled for this week. In the meantime, they were satisfied with Mr. Riley's explanation.

"Initially, I needed to make sure that he had not backed away from his beliefs and commitments," Robert F. Chase, the president of the 2.2 million-member National Education Association, said in an interview. "The sense I get is that if it comes up again, he will clearly state that if a voucher would undermine public education, he would oppose it."

For leading the charge against vouchers at all levels of government, the NEA has come under criticism from Mr. Dole for blocking what he considers a promising school reform.

Other voucher opponents said Mr. Clinton is prone to criticism no matter what he says on the issue.

If the president had "come down hard against state and local voucher plans, I wonder if the headline from the voucher proponents would be: Federal government controls local decisionmaking," said Maribeth Oakes, the assistant director of government relations for the National PTA.

Calculated Words?

Others wondered whether Mr. Clinton's comments were deliberate.

An administration official said the words were not scripted.

But others thought Mr. Clinton was making his latest pitch to appeal to more conservative voters.

"President Clinton is a constitutional scholar. He has too much background in education to make an offhand remark on the most controversial issue in education," said Mark Weston, the state-services coordinator for the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

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