WASHINGTON--Secretary of Education William J. Bennett has formally unveiled his proposed changes in the federal compensatory-education program, with an assist from Senator Claiborne Pell, the Rhode Island Democrat who is chairman of a key education subcommittee.
Mr. Pell, who has opposed Mr. Bennett and the Reagan Administration on several issues, last week introduced a bill incorporating the Education Department’s suggestions for reauthorizing the Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 programs, which expire this year.
At hearings conducted by his Labor and Human Resources subcommittee on education, arts, and the humanities, Mr. Pell praised the Secretary’s plan, saying it contained “very worthwhile’’ proposals.
The bill, outlined by department officials in recent briefings, would create a limited, voluntary voucher program, set aside money to finance innovative programs, and require school districts to use the federal funds to serve their neediest students.
A companion measure in the House is sponsored by Representative James Jeffords of Vermont, the ranking Republican on the Education and Labor Committee.
“We think it is significant that Mr. Pell has agreed to introduce our bill,’' a department spokesman said.
But aides to Mr. Pell stressed that the Senator’s willingness to introduce the Administration’s bill does not amount to an endorsement of that plan, which contains several features opposed by many education groups.
“He was not trying to make a statement on the merits of the bill one way or the other,’' a top subcommittee staff member said.
The Senator has already sponsored a measure that would renew the existing Chapter 1 law for another five years, and he is expected to introduce his own package of amendments later this spring.
At the Senate hearings, however, Mr. Pell praised department officials for their “highly substantive suggestions.’' He promised that “the Administration will be ballplayers in this important legislative effort.’'
Mr. Bennett also struck a conciliatory note in his testimony before the subcommittee. Officials of his department are “willing to work with you or with anyone else on modifications to these ideas,’' he said.
While expressing their willingness to compromise, Mr. Bennett and other top officials vigorously defended the department’s proposals, especially its voucher plan.
Under that plan, districts could choose to offer “compensatory-education certificates’’ that parents could use at any private or public school that offered remedial instruction.
The bill would allow districts broad discretion to decide who qualified forthe certificates, as long as those criteria did not discriminate against private-school students. States, however, could require districts to offer the vouchers if they believed schools were not serving disadvantaged students.
Before the subcommittee, Mr. Bennett stressed what he said was a need to make the Chapter 1 program more “results-oriented,’' by giving parents a broader array of choices and making local officials more accountable for their actions.
“Sell bad hamburger meat in this country and there is a government agency waiting to catch you, fine you, and maybe even put you out of business,’' Mr. Bennett said. “But take federal funds and run an utterly ineffective compensatory-education program, and the federal government will be around to provide more funds the following year.’'
The Secretary’s remarks prompted criticism from one of his most vocal critics in the Congress, Senator Lowell P. Weicker Jr., Republican of Connecticut. The department’s voucher plan, Mr. Weicker argued, would not address the problems in public schools that result in poor compensatory programs. “If there are failings in the public-school system, why aren’t we going in and fixing those problems?’' he asked Mr. Bennett. “You’re the Secretary of Education.’'
The department’s proposals “are one more vehicle for improving education in public schools at the local level,’' Mr. Bennett replied. The Congressional mandate that created the Chapter 1 program, he said, requires the department to see that compensatory services are delivered to public and private schools alike.
“I can’t ignore those [private school] students,’' the Secretary said.
The voucher program, department officials said, would be the major tool available to state and local officials wrestling with what Wendell L. Willkie, the department’s general counsel, called “the inherent tension’’ created by the Supreme Court’s 1985 ruling in Aguilar v. Felton.
That decision, which barred public-school instructors from visiting religious schools to teach compensatory classes, has created financial and administrative problems for many school districts.
According to Mr. Bennett, the number of non-public-school students participating in the Chapter 1 program has declined by about 20 percent since the Court’s Felton ruling.
“We are talking about poor children in inner-city parochial schools that are largely black,’' he said. “These are the kids we are trying to get help to; these are the kids that Congress says we should be trying to help.’'
Voucher plans, Mr. Bennett said, would allow districts to avoid expensive arrangements for complying with the Felton decision, such as buying vans or renting space in “neutral’’ buildings to provide remedial classes for religious-school pupils.
Mr. Pell, however, asked why so many teachers and administrators have opposed a proposal that, according to the Administration, would be of such help to them.
“There are those who will call any attempt to provide choice to parents an effort to harm the public-school system,’' Mr. Bennett replied.
A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 1987 edition of Education Week as Bennett, Senator Unveil E.D. Plan for Remedial Aid