Secretary of Education William J. Bennett last week encountered strong bipartisan skepticism on Capitol Hill about the Chapter 1 voucher bill.
Republicans and Democrats at a Congressional hearing questioned the fundamental premises of the proposed legislation drafted by Mr. Bennett’s aides, as well as its administrative implications and civil-rights provisions.
Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education, Mr. Bennett maintained that “parental choice in education is an idea whose time has come” and that the bill, H R 3821—known as the equity and choice act (TEACH)—would “increase educational opportunity for disadvantaged children.”
Under the legislation, the states would distribute more than $3 billion in Chapter 1 aid in the form of school vouchers to parents of educationally disadvantaged pupils. The parents could apply the vouchers toward their children’s educational costs at public or private schools of their choice.
Chapter I, the largest federal education program, finances remedial education for about 5 million students. School districts now get grants based on their population of poor children.
Democrats and Republicans took turns attacking the proposal in the three-and-a-half hour session.
A senior member of the panel, Representative William D. Ford, Democrat of Michigan, echoed the nearly unanimous sentiment of the subcommittee when he said the estimated amounts of the vouchers are too low to accomplish the bill’s goals. He compared the proposal to “throwing a bone” to the poor.
Under the plan, the voucher amounts would average about $600, with the value varying from state to state-from less than $300 to more than $I,OOO-depending on the state’s current per-pupil Chapter 1 allocation.
Mr. Bennett contended that the median tuition at private elementary schools—most of which are religious schools—is $773, “roughly the average of a voucher.”
Representative Ford also asserted that the task of efficiently distributing the vouchers would be virtually impossible. He said there was “no relationship between the formula that distributes money from Washington to local districts and counties and the identification of people who are going to participate” in the program.
In practice, “no one knows in the school district until after classes start whether a kid is a Chapter 1 kid,” Mr. Ford explained. “How does a parent exercise choice if they don’t know they’re a Chapter 1 parent until after school starts?”
Representative William F. Goodling of Pennsylvania, a former school administrator and the senior Republican on the subcommittee, cited what he said were numerous conceptual and technical flaws in the bill.
“I don’t want to be involved in something that cannot deliver, and I’m not sure that this can,” he said.
Mr. Goodling asked the Secretary about pupils’ transportation problems and about the different regulatory standards for participating public and private schools. He also asked how a school could plan for its Chapter 1 program without knowing how many of the eligible students might enroll elsewhere.
Snapped Mr. Bennett: “If you’re going to lose 75 percent of your students, you’re going to have problems. But if you lose 75 percent of your students, you deserve to have problems.”
Representative Major R. Owens, Democrat of New York, noting that the bill would allow parents to use the vouchers for general tuition costs, said private schools could use the federal aid to “pay the janitor or the headmaster” instead of for supplementary educational services.
Similarly, Representative Harris W. Fawell, Republican of Illinois, suggested that the bill be limited to financing supplementary education. He said Mr. Bennett’s proposal would “siphon off already limited resources for compensatory services.”
“It’s really an educational question,” responded Mr. Bennett. “Educationally, I can’t see a good reason to say to the parent, ‘Your child might be better off [at the private school] but you can’t send him there.’”
Panel members also harshly criticized the bill for exempting participating private schools from the range of federal civil-rights laws and regulations, saying that this would promote unfair competition between public and private schools.
“The question is whether it’s appropriate to burden [small, private] institutions with administrative and recordkeeping requirements,” said Wendell L. Willkie 2nd, the Education Department’s general counsel, who accompanied Mr. Bennett.
The legislation was introduced in the House by Patrick L. Swindall of Georgia, a freshman Republican, and in the Senate by Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah and chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee
A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 1986 edition of Education Week