Bush Seeks To Reward District Plans That Include Private-School Choice

By Mark Pitsch — February 13, 1991 9 min read
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Washington--Along with his fiscal 1992 budget, President Bush last week presented the Congress with a domestic-policy agenda topped by $690 million in education initiatives, including a proposal to reward school districts that establish choice policies allowing parents to enroll their children in private schools.

The budget also outlines new proposals to reward schools for improved student achievement and plans for revamping the student-aid system that are likely to form part of the Administration’s proposal for reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

And some education programs would be included in an Administration plan to turn over $15 billion in social-service programs to states as a block grant.

The education initiatives are literally at the top of the agenda in budget messages from Mr. Bush and Richard G. Darman, director of the Office of Management and Budget. They typify themes that run throughout the budget: “empowerment” of individuals, increased responsibility and flexibility for state government, and a narrower targeting of federal aid to the most disadvantaged.

“The Administration clearly makes a case for education to be an important part of our national life and for the national goals to be an imperative,” said Michael Edwards, the National Education Association’s manager of Congressional relations.

But he and other critics in the education community and on Capitol Hill disagree with Mr. Bush’s contention that choice itself will spur reform.

“I’m disappointed because I really expected the last two years of his first term would be a time to show some real initiatives, not lip service,” said Representative William D. Ford, the Democrat from Michigan who is chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

The Administration has proposed a group of choice proposals, but the one drawing the most attention and fire would create a $200-million fund from which the Education Department would distribute grants to districts that have established a parental-choice policy.

To qualify, programs must allow parents to choose among public and private schools and give “the parent control over sufficient funds to make the choice meaningful,” according to budget documents.

Only districts operating federal compensatory-education programs would qualify, and allocations would be based on their share of Chapter 1 funds.

“The funds will not pay for choice programs,” the President’s budget says. “They will be incentive grants to areas that implement such programs, and will have to be used to pay for additional educational services.”

A high-ranking Administration official said that some officials favored a plan giving vouchers directly to parents, but that the incentive plan was viewed as a way to pass some potential difficulties--such as constitutional questions about funding for private schools--to school districts.

“It’s a bribe, to be blunt about it,” the official said. “It’s a bribe to school districts to do what we want them to do.”

The plan has sparked confusion and skepticism in the education community. Although it was apparently designed to avoid direct provision of vouchers, education lobbyists fear the so-called Education Certificate Program Support Fund would ultimately do just that.

Officials of the National Association of Elementary School Principals said that after a closed briefing that White House, O.M.B., and Education Department officials gave for principals attending a conference here, they remained convinced that the establishment of voucher programs--which the education community maintains will leave poorer schools with fewer resources and fewer students--is the Administration’s ultimate goal.

“Essentially the message was, the train of choice has left the station, and you have three choices: You can get on, you can shoot at it as it goes by, or you can ignore it,” Michael F. Tobin, an NAESP staff member, said in describing the meeting.

Initial Congressional reaction to the specifics of the choice initiative was tentative, as many questions remain unanswered.

For example, it is unclear how inclusive choice programs must be to qualify. Acting Secretary of Education Ted Sanders said a district could exclude religious schools, but did not specify whether they could include some but not others or exclude private schools on any other basis.

“We’d be real interested to see what [President Bush] is driving at,” said one Senate Republican aide, who wondered whether the budget documents accurately describe “what in fact it’s going to be like.”

A House Democratic aide said, “It’s hard to conjecture without knowing what [the Administration] is thinking. A choice program between public schools is different than a choice program between public and private schools. A choice program that includes money for actual implementation is different than a choice program with money for planning.”

Some argue that including private schools in the program and allowing religious schools to participate will inevitably raise constitutional questions.

“In that case we would be coercing the states to change their constitutions, and I don’t think we should be in that kind of business,” said Representative Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, ranking Republican on the Education and Labor Committee.

Mr. Goodling said he would support choice incentives offered by the federal government if they did not include private schools and if “there are no strings attached.”

In addition to the incentive plan, Mr. Bush has proposed:

A $30-million grant program to highlight model choice programs and help states make choice plans work.

Replacing the existing magnet-schools program with one open to all districts, whether or not they are undergoing desegregation.

Increasing from 20 percent to 50 percent the amount of money states could reserve from their Chapter 2 block-grants pool and allowing the use of those funds for choice plans.

The choice initiatives are to be included in a new version of the President’s so-called “educational excellence act.” According to budget documents, the bill will also include several proposals that were part of a more modest package that died in the last Congress after being incorporated with Congressional proposals into an omnibus bill.(See Education Week, Nov. 7, 1990.)

To be revived are grants to support alternative-certification routes for teachers and administrators, rewards to exemplary teachers, and endowment grants for historically black colleges and universities.

A new proposal for “incentive grants” to schools that boost student-achievement levels is similar to last session’s “merit schools” plan.

In addition, the Administration is proposing a separate, $40-million reward program for improvement in math and science.

Two other promised initiatives--a $20-million program to establish partnerships between school districts and universities for school-based teacher training and unspecified “innovative adult-literacy programs’'--were apparently inspired by Congressional efforts in those areas.

As were some Administration proposals, ambitious programs to promote literacy and teacher training died with last year’s omnibus bill. Both have been reintroduced.

Finally, Mr. Bush promised support for new assessment techniques and an expansion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Another centerpiece of the Administration’s agenda is a block-grant program that is not focused specifically on education, but could have a profound impact on education programs and spending.

Mr. Bush has proposed that at least $15 billion in education, environment, housing, welfare, and other social-service spending be consolidated into a block grant. States would receive a lump sum comparable to what they would receive under each separate program and could then distribute the funds as they saw fit.

The President has suggested a list of programs to include in the block grants, but he said the Congress and the states should not feel compelled to stick to it. Among the suggested programs are four from the Education Department: impact aid, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, the Chapter 2 block grant, and public-library services.

For each of the programs except Chapter 2, which stayed approximately level, Mr. Bush proposed reducing funding from fiscal 1991 levels. However, all but Chapter 2 are programs that the Reagan and Bush administrations have repeatedly tried to cut or eliminate.

The nation’s governors have generally welcomed the proposal, which was the primary topic at a National Governors’ Association meeting here last week. Governors said their primary concern is that a move to block grants could mean future funding cuts. (See related story on page 1.)

Education advocates agreed. They also noted that once education programs were included in block grants, states would not be obliged to spend any of the money on education.

“Once Congress turns programs into block grants, they quickly lose interest,” said Gregory Humphrey, director of legislation for the American Federation of Teachers.

As with the choice certificates, Congressional aides said they need more information before taking a position. However, they said, the Congress has traditionally not favored block grants because their benefits are not directly apparent and because they tend to get reduced year after year.

The final item on the President’s education agenda is revamping the structure of federal student assistance--an important issue as the Congress prepares to reauthorize the Higher Education Act.

The Administration is proposing a 7 percent, $401-million increase for the Pell Grant program, with an additional $170 million in Presidential Achievement Scholarships for about 340,000 grant recipients ranking at the top of their classes.

But those increases come at the expense of other federal-aid programs and working- and middle-class students, who will be cut out of the program and forced to rely on federally backed loans. The loan volume in the Guaranteed Student Loan program is to increase by $72 million, loan limits would be substantially increased, and 182,000 more students are expected to participate.

Pell Grants would be targeted to students from families with incomes below $10,000, and the maximum annual award would be increased from $2,400 to $3,700. Some 400,000 fewer students would receive awards.

Mr. Bush has proposed eliminating other aid programs, such as Perkins loans and State Student Incentive Grants, in which states match federal aid. The President also proposed substantial cuts in S.E.O.G. and the work-study program. Under the proposal, the institutional contribution for those programs would increase to 50 percent, up from 15 percent and 30 percent, respectively.

While lobbyists and Congressional leaders praised Mr. Bush for seeking ways to help the neediest students, they criticized him for doing it at other students’ expense.

“I am concerned that targeting students with income less than $10,000 will hurt truly needy families,” said Senator Claiborne Pell, the Democrat from Rhode Island and chairman of the Education, Arts, and Humanities Subcommittee after whom the Pell Grant was named. “The budget doesn’t take into account the real needs of middle-income families, [many of whom] find higher education out of their reach.”

Although the budget did not include a proposal that the government make direct loans to students and do away with the GSL program, that option is still under consideration.

A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 1991 edition of Education Week as Bush Seeks To Reward District Plans That Include Private-School Choice

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