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Voucher Plan Advances to House Floor

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Breaking new ground in the escalating school choice debate on Capitol Hill, the House last Friday set the stage for a vote this week on a bill that would allow money from an existing federal program to be used for vouchers for needy students.

The so-called HELP Scholarships, a recent creation of Republican leaders and one Democrat, were poised to go to the House floor early this week after bypassing the normal committee process. The bill received endorsements from a range of conservative and minority groups, and its supporters were optimistic about its chances in the House.

Key lawmakers put the HELP, or Helping Empower Low-Income Parents, bill on a fast track last week after an Oct. 24 committee vote on it was canceled. The House voted, 214-198, on Friday to let the bill come to the floor without a committee hearing or vote.

But it was evident last week that the measure would face a tough battle in the Senate and an almost-certain presidential veto even if it cleared both chambers.

Rep. James M. Talent

The bill would allow local districts, with state approval, to use money from the Chapter 6 omnibus block grant--a $310 million program in fiscal 1997--to pay for vouchers for the nation's poorest students to attend any public, private, or parochial school in their neighborhoods. A state's legislature would first have to pass a law permitting the vouchers before its districts could take part in the initiative.

"This is not intended to be an enormous step, but an important one," Rep. James M. Talent, R-Mo., said in an interview last week shortly after an event promoting the bill. Mr. Talent, one of the measure's main sponsors, added that he sees it as a tool for parents and community leaders who want to experiment with vouchers.

HR 2746, as the bill is designated, is the first free-standing piece of voucher legislation to make it to the House floor. Other congressional attempts to pass vouchers have come in the form of amendments to other bills. Last month, the House voted in favor of vouchers for Washington schools as part of a larger District of Columbia appropriations bill.

The HELP bill gives a narrow definition of student eligibility for the grants: The recipients' family income would have to be at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line, and the schools they chose would have to be located in economically depressed areas with pervasive poverty.

The dollar amount of the vouchers would vary. But it could not exceed a locality's per-pupil funding allotment for public education, or be less than 60 percent of that per-pupil allocation or the cost of private tuition at the chosen school, whichever was less.

Veto Threat

The bill's sponsors say they are prepared for a potential showdown with President Clinton, who has adamantly opposed any form of federal aid for private school tuition. In a campaign debate last year, Mr. Clinton suggested that he was not opposed to voucher plans adopted by states or school districts. Administration officials were quick to insist that those remarks did not represent a softening of his position on the issue. ("Clinton Position on Private Vouchers Debated," Oct. 16, 1996.)

In an Oct. 30 statement of administration policy issued in response to the help Scholarship proposal, officials at the Office of Management and Budget said they would advise Mr. Clinton to veto the bill. "Federal funding of private school vouchers is bad policy because it would divert needed attention and resources from the nation's public schools," the advisers wrote.

Rep. Frank Riggs, the California Republican who chairs the House subcommittee that considers K-12 issues, said in an interview that he had Mr. Clinton's 1996 debate remarks in mind when he recently rewrote the legislation to require approval of the HELP vouchers by state and local governments. Mr. Riggs predicted a Senate filibuster against the measure. The House Education and the Workforce Committee plans to merge the bill with a measure to amend the federal charter school law--which was also expected to be approved this week--before sending it to the Senate.

Last week's activity in the House capped a flurry of recent congressional activity on vouchers. The House last month passed a measure conceived by Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., that would set up tax-exempt savings accounts for educational expenses. Earlier this fall, the House approved a District of Columbia appropriations bill that would pay for vouchers for about 2,000 impoverished students in Washington. The Senate had not voted on that spending bill as of press time last week.

On the Fast Track

The decision to send the HELP bill directly to the House floor infuriated some Democrats. "The Republican party has ridden roughshod over the entire democratic process," Rep. William L. Clay, the Education and the Workforce Committee's senior Democrat, said in a speech on the House floor Friday.

The bill also drew blasts from the national teachers' unions and some other education groups.

Sally McConnell, the government-relations director for the National Association of Elementary School Principals in Alexandria, Va., called it "a garden-variety voucher" that promised too much to low-income parents.

"It's insulting to the low-income community because it's an absolute lie that parents get to choose," she contended. "It's the private school admissions people who get to choose."

Celia Lose, a spokeswoman for the 950,000-member American Federation of Teachers, said her union would fight any federal, state, or local initiative related to the plan. "We would oppose such an effort with as much vigor as we have opposed other voucher efforts," she said.

At an event held to promote the plan last week, a diverse group of Republican leaders, including Mr. Riggs and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, joined African-American leaders, including Reps. Floyd Flake, D-N.Y., and J.C. Watts, R-Okla.

"It is not us taking dollars from the public education system. The prison system is taking dollars from public education," Mr. Watts said at the event, sponsored by the Center for New Black Leadership, a Washington-based research and advocacy group.

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