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Riley, Bennett Talk Vouchers, Tests Before New Education Task Force

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Washington

The Senate has launched a new look into what works in federal education spending.

The Education Task Force, the brainchild of Sen. Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, kicked off last week with testimony from Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley and one of his better-known predecessors, William J. Bennett.

Mr. Bennett promoted school choice and a plan to give vouchers to needy students in Washington. The House last month passed a District of Columbia appropriations bill that includes a $7 million voucher plan. The Senate had not acted on it as of late last week.

"It's a very odd argument that unless we can help everybody, then we will help no one," said Mr. Bennett, who served as education secretary under President Reagan. "There is no moral defense for keeping students in these lousy, rotten schools."

Mr. Riley took the opposite tack, saying vouchers for 2,000 Washington children do not amount to long-term reform. "If you have $7 million to put into D.C. schools, put it into redoing the schools," he said.

Familiar Mission

The mission of the new task force is similar to that of an existing House Education and the Workforce Committee effort spearheaded by Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich. The seven-member Senate group, led by Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., will hold hearings this fall and into next year. Both groups are planning to release reports on their findings in time for next year's budget process. ("GOP Targets Government Waste, Bureaucracy in Schools Spending," May 14, 1997.)

Sen. Frist said last week that he wants to find ways to boost student achievement and that he worries American students are not keeping up academically with their peers in other countries.

Mr. Riley painted a rosier picture while promoting President Clinton's education agenda. He also criticized a bill that recently passed the House that would allow parents to set aside up to $2,500 a year in tax-exempt accounts that could be used to help pay education expenses for their children. The plan, sponsored by Sen. Paul Coverdell, D-Ga., would offer little or no savings for average families, Mr. Riley argued.

Mr. Coverdell, who is not a member of the task force but attended last week's meeting, shot back that the program would not take money away from public school students, but only give their families savings in taxes.

"If you have tax-free interest, then that's everybody in the country providing a benefit for that person," Mr. Riley replied.

Common Ground

While Mr. Riley and Mr. Bennett took opposing sides on vouchers, they found common ground--up to a point--on an issue that has deeply divided members of Congress: national testing.

Mr. Bennett said he supports the concept of new national tests--an idea many other conservatives oppose. But he said he does not back Mr. Clinton's proposed plan for voluntary national tests of 4th and 8th graders, because he feels it could be subject to political influence.

Mr. Riley reiterated the case for the White House plan, which continues to hold up an education spending bill last week. ("Latest Testing Compromise Appears Doomed," in This Week's News.)

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