House Committee Vote Likely Dooms Voucher Plan
In a second and perhaps fatal blow to President Bush's push for federal vouchers, the House education committee last week followed the Senate's lead and removed the proposal from the pending education overhaul bill. However, the committee stood by the president's call for annual testing of 3rd to 8th graders.
House Republican leaders vowed to continue to fight for the voucher plan, although they were not sure if they would offer an amendment when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization is voted on by the full House. And while some members on both sides of the aisle expressed reservations about the testing plan, they agreed to keep it in the bill.
Debate and tinkering on HR 1, the reauthorization bill that failed to clear Congress last year, will continue this week as the House Education and Workforce Committee prepares to pass its version of the bill.
Five Republicans supported an amendment from Rep. George Miller of California, the committee's top Democrat, to delete provisions in HR 1 allowing students in schools deemed failing for three consecutive years to receive vouchers of up to $1,500 that could be used for tuition at private or religious schools. The amendment passed, 27-20.
But Democrats agreed to language in the bill allowing a student to choose another public school only one year after his or her school was found to be failing. The student's family could also request that the school pay for private tutoring.
Members of both parties reached deep into their metaphor bags as the panel began consideration of the omnibus education bill, evoking leeches, escape hatches, sinking ships, and other colorful imagery.
"We build ships with lifeboats, but we don't give kids a way out of dangerous, poor-performing schools," said Rep. John A. Boehner, the Ohio Republican who chairs the committee. Rep. Lynn N. Rivers, D-Mich., said vouchers, as a prescription for ailing schools, are akin to the blood-sucking worms medieval doctors employed to treat the sick.
Vouchers, Democrats said, would in fact work against the principle of accountability at the philosophical core of President Bush's education plan. Rep. Tim Roemer D-Ind., argued that the federal government could not make sure students attending private schools with public funds were held to the same high standards as their peers in public schools. "We can't make the heart and soul of this bill accountability, and then have vouchers," he said.
Some Republicans agreed.
Rep. Todd R. Platts, R-Pa. said the heart of Mr. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" plan is accountability and other issues such as reading interventions—not vouchers.
"I believe the president's intention is not abandoning any child. But when we come to the issue of vouchers, that's what we do," he argued.
Rep. Marge Roukema, R-N.J., questioned the constitutionality of a voucher measure and said it could spur other court cases because it would give vouchers to some, but not all, students in failing schools.
'Heart of HR 1'
But other Republicans noted that some special education and Title I dollars already go to private schools, in instances where the public school cannot provide services or the parents have chosen a private or religious school. "Presumably, those who oppose vouchers haven't opposed these kinds of vouchers," said Rep. Mark Souder, R- Ind.
And some of the more conservative members of the panel pleaded with their colleagues not to vote with the Democrats to scrap the voucher provision.
"This is the heart of our HR 1 and the president's proposal," said Rep. Bob Schaffer, R-Colo. "To vote for this amendment is to drive a stake through the heart and the importance of the bill and abandon our president."
President Bush acknowledged the voucher proposal's ebbing prospects last week, telling a group of reporters that while he hasn't given up hope, he doesn't expect vouchers will survive Congress. But Mr. Bush is encouraged that private tutoring and other options appear to have a good chance of passage, according to news reports.
"I believe we're going to end up with a whole menu of opportunities, with the exception of public money for private schools," the president said.
The Family Research Council gave the voucher- less bill a failing grade.
"HR 1 no longer bears any resemblance to President Bush's education plan," the conservative advocacy group's president, Ken O'Connor, said in a statement.
Testing Plan Advances
Meanwhile, Mr. Bush's plan for annual testing of students in grades 3-8 in reading and mathematics survived a challenge by Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn. She said that her state and others had already built adequate testing systems, and that HR 1 would not provide enough funding for another layer of testing.
While other Democrats said they also were worried about the effects of the Bush testing plan on their states, they nonetheless supported it.
"Clearly, we're a long way from sorting out much of the controversy of annual testing," Mr. Miller said. But, he said, states must have an annual diagnosis of students' performance to ensure students who are not performing at grade level get help and do not fall further behind.
In other votes, the House committee rejected plans to continue authorization for the current $1.6 billion class-size- reduction and $1.2 billion school construction plans, both initiatives from the Clinton administration and top priorities of Democrats.
They also greed to a plan by Mr. Castle, the chairman of the subcommittee that handles most K-12 issues, that would increase the authorization levels for ESEA programs, including up to $17.2 billion in Title I funding by fiscal 2006. The program's total fiscal 2001 spending is $8.60 billion.
Vol. 20, Issue 34, Pages 23-24