Rejecting Bennett Voucher Bill, House G.O.P. Goes Own Way

By James Hertling — February 12, 1986 4 min read

Moderate House Republicans are crafting their own bill to provide remedial-education vouchers to disadvantaged students.

Their measure, while opposing key portions of the Reagan Administration proposal, could give a significant political push to the concept of vouchers.

The bill, which is now being drafted for the House Wednesday Group, the moderates’ caucus, would place more specific limits on the uses of the Chapter 1 voucher--particularly in private schools--and would include new civil-rights provisions, according to Representative Paul B. Henry, Republican of Michigan, who initiated consideration of the measure.

One of the members of the Wednesday Group is James M. Jeffords of Vermont, the senior Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee.

This Republican effort, following the recent endorsement of the Administration bill by the U.S. Catholic Conference, appears to enhance the political viability of a voucher plan. It remains unlikely, however, that either the House committee or the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee will clear a voucher bill this year, observers say.

But the Chapter 1 program--which provides over $3 billion for remedial education to about 5 million students--is due for reauthorization in 1987. And the process of Congressional examination and revision of the law will open up further opportunities for supporters of vouchers.

Arnold F. Fege, director of governmental relations for the National Congress of Parents and Teachers and a leading opponent of vouchers, said of Secretary of Education William J. Bennett’s high-priority campaign for the Administration’s bill, “I presume that he’s looking at the long term. This battle is only starting.”

A House education panel plans to hear testimony from Mr. Bennett Feb. 26 on his proposal--the equity and choice act (TEACH)--which would convert the Chapter 1 program into a voucher system.

House G.O.P. Bill

The Wednesday Group’s bill will seek to correct what its members see as at least two major flaws in TEACH, according to Steven I. Hofman, the group’s executive director.

Among its major problems, according to the group’s analysis, TEACH forbids a student to remain in his or her public school while using the voucher for compensatory services elsewhere--foreclosing, rather than creating, options for disadvantaged students, he said.

And Representative Henry, in an interview last week, said the TEACH bill’s civil-rights provisions for non public schools are unsatisfactory. For example, under TEACH, private schools that receive vouchers are not considered recipients of federal aid and are thus not subject to the range of federal civil-rights statutes.

Essentially, the moderate Republicans’ bill--which is now in “very preliminary stages"--would allow parents to use federal Chapter 1 funds for any approved program of supplementary instruction, at a public or private institution, but not to “offset tuition at a private school,” as TEACH would permit, said Representative Henry.

Mr. Hofman said it is still far too early for the group to have considered such contingencies as whether the proposal would have the effect of increasing government regulation of private schools.

The bill would also seek to improve diagnostic methods, by having districts select Chapter 1 students on the basis of criterion-referenced tests rather than norm-referenced tests. The latter rank students but do not indicate their specific educational needs, said Representative Henry.

The Republican group members generally endorse the aims of the Administration proposal, such as increased choice for disadvantaged parents and the promotion of competition among schools, said Representative Henry. But he added that his proposal involves a broader re-examination of the compensatory-education program.

“We’re looking at Chapter 1 from the point of view of the needs of students, rather than the needs of school systems,” he said. He contended that Chapter 1 now more closely resembles a “millage equalization” formula for districts with many poor children, rather than a program designed to provide supplementary educational services.

‘Politicized’ Context

Representative Henry, who represents Grand Rapids, said he recognized that his proposal was “being considered in the context of the voucher, so there’s an incredible politicization here.”

Commenting on the coming reauthorization, he added, “The issue is going to be forced upon us within this year or next year, and what I am concerned about is that the controversy will drag down any opportunity to give comprehensive and substantive review to compensatory education.”

The vocal opposition to Chapter 1 vouchers and to federal aid for private schools was articulated recently in a report issued by Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

The assessment sharply criticized the entire TEACH bill, asserting that it is “anti-public education” and that it is “bribing people to abandon” public schools.

A version of this article appeared in the February 12, 1986 edition of Education Week