House Panel's Vote Marks a Sea Change On the Choice Issue

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WASHINGTON-- The House Education and Labor Committee's approval last month of compromise legislation that would allow school districts to use federal funds for private-school choice programs heralds a sea change on Capitol Hill, observers say.

For the first time in recent memory, they point out, it is conceivable to think that the Congress might even take the next stop and itself agree to fund choice plans that help parents send their children to private schools.

While the legislation approved last month, HR 3320, would probably not directly underwrite such programs, it would provide grants to states and school districts to develop and implement education'reform strategies. Committees including educators, students, parents, and business leaders would choose which activities they wanted to pursue.

But among those possibilities are "choice programs consistent with state law and state constitutions which permit parents to select the school their children will attend." The language appears to leave open the possibility that some committees could use their federal funds to send children to private schools.

The provision made its way into the bill because of Representative William D. Ford's fears that an amendment specifically earmarking funds for choice plans including private schools would pass if offered on the House floor. (See Education Week, Oct. 23, 1991.)

Mr. Ford, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Education and Labor Committee, made a deal with White House officials to support the provision if they opposed efforts to replace it with a mandate.

On Oct. 17, lobbyists for public school organizations watched glumly as an amendment that would have limited funding to public-school choice programs was defeated.

In interviews last week, observers agreed it was a significant moment.

"It's indicative that there's a lot more fluidity among House members as to what kind of education'reform strategies should be pursued than the education community thought," said Edward R. Kealy, the director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association.

Some advocates said they disagree with Mr. Ford's assertion that the House would surely approve a private-school choice plan if given the chance, and that they would have preferred that he had taken the risk.

"We have a fundamental difference on strategy," said Michael Edwards, the manager of Congressional relations for the National Education Association. '"We would argue for taking a strong position and falling back if necessary. Mr. Ford thinks it's better to compromise now."

But most observers said Mr. Ford is probably right.

"Look at what happened with the child-care legislation," said Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. "I think that sticks in his mind."

Several advocates mentioned last year's battle over child care, during which lawmakers voted to allow federal money to go to centers operated by religious groups, even if they teach religion and discriminate on the basis of religious belief.

"The change has been coming for some time," Mr. Ambach said. "There is a broad feeling across the country that the need for innovation requires the opening up of possibilities."

Evidence of Change

Representatives for private-school groups, who said they were surprised and delighted by the committee's action, universally contended that public opinion had swayed lawmakers, citing recent polls in which respondents favored school choice.

"I think what you're seeing in Congress is a realization of how these issues play with the American public," said John Sanders, the director of governmental relations for the National Association of Independent Schools. "That's the significance of the vote and the unwillingness of people in Congress who are in leadership positions to challenge the [choice] provision."

Representative Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, Education and Laber's ranking Republican, said it is the nature of current proposals that makes their passage conceivable, where more sweeping plans would fail.

"If you talked about vouchers outright, I think [Mr. Ford] would have the votes to defeat that," Mr. Goodling said. "If you're talking about a local district or a state requesting a grant to try experimental things, including choice, I think that's different."

Mr. Kealy of the N.S.B.A. credited "10 years of advocacy by the Reagan and Bush administrations."

Representative Dale E. Kildee, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the panel's subcommittee on elementary, secondary, and vocational education, also credits the Administration with influencing Congressional policy, but through old-fashioned political arm-twisting.

"I think the factor that has changed is the strength the White House has been able to exert," Mr. Kildee said, adding that, in debate among committee Democrats on how to proceed with HR 3320, the discussion centered on recent instances where the Administration had won victories on the House floor.

"The question was, do you think we can hold the line here if all the Republicans support the White House, and they bring out a $26'million demonstration program for private schools," Mr. Kildee said.

Strategy Debated

Mr. Kildee confirmed that committee Democrats were concerned about talk that the Senate would probably vote in favor of a proposal Administration officials had made for a small program funding private school choice plans.

"It is possible, but it's not certain," a Democratic Senate aide said, adding that a comprehensive education bill being developed by the Labor and Human Resources Committee would fund only public-school choice plans--at least as introduced.

"It's going on, there are places where [choice] is happening," the aide said. "After a while, it gets harder and harder for people to say you can't do it. You could design it in such a way that people could have a hard time finding reasons to oppose it."

Education groups are still debating what strategy they should adopt with regard to HR 3320.

Private-school advocates must decide if they will support the current bill or push for something stronger.

"Any bill that includes a choice element in it and at least does not specifically prohibit the participation of private schools is all to the good," said Sister Catherine McNamee, the president of the National Catholic Educational Association. "Naturally, the preference would be a bill that does specifically include private and religiously affiliated schools."

Differences of Opinion

Mr. Ambach supports the bill enthusiastically, calling it "an innovative federal approach."

"It's the first time there's been a significant noncategorical bill that deals with systemic reform," he said. "We believe the systemic approach is what's needed at this time."

Other advocates said that their groups may back the bill, despite the choice provision, but that they would prefer to spend the money elsewhere.

Lobbyists for the nation's teachers' unions were the most critical.

"It's empty of ideas," said Gregory Humphrey, the legislative director for the American Federation of Teachers. "The only thing that could have an effect is the choice provisions."

"It was done for political reasons, not substantive reasons," Mr. Edwards of the N.E.A. said, because "they had to do something" in response to the Administration's America 2000 education strategy.

The most important results, he contended, are "the development of a consensus among Democrats that there was a need for a more substantive education initiative" and "the emergence of freshman Democrats as a force in education policy."

Mr. Kildee confirmed that HR 3320 was originally conceived as the Democrats' total response to America 2000, but that the dissatisfied response of committee members persuaded him and Mr. Ford to begin work on a larger bill.

"I'm not surprised," Mr. Goodling said. "The [Democratic] leadership in beth the House and Senate are making a big deal about how they should be out in front on education issues, not the President, and they should write the biggest bill they can."

But while some advocates are hopeful that such a development will come to pass, others are pessimistic.

"There's a clear desire to do more, but can they really do more?" Mr. Humphrey said. "A $15-billion bill can't become law, but [HR 3320] can."

Vol. 11, Issue 10, Pages 1, 26

Published in Print: November 6, 1991, as House Panel's Vote Marks a Sea Change On the Choice Issue
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