Voucher Fight Shows New Political Dynamics

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When House Republicans pulled the plug last month on their plan to equip District of Columbia students with federally funded "scholarships" that could be used at private and religious schools, their defeat ended the most sustained and visible congressional debate over school vouchers in recent memory.

For the first time, a majority of lawmakers went on record--explicitly in the House and implicitly in the Senate--in favor of the idea.

"There's majority support in this Congress for vouchers," said John F. Jennings, a longtime Democratic congressional aide who is now the director of the nonpartisan Center on National Education Policy here. "It's a watershed in that it showed opponents having to go to a filibuster to stop it."

Moreover, observers said, the high-profile Capitol Hill battle was merely the federal manifestation of a debate that has already attracted attention to state and local initiatives.

"You've got a Congress that's move favorable toward vouchers. That's no surprise," said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, a research and advocacy group that favors private school vouchers. "But it's also indicative of what's happening nationally. This is a growing area of debate, especially in the inner cities."

In Wisconsin, for example, voucher backers and foes are girding for further legal battles after the state supreme court deadlocked on a case challenging a plan to let Milwaukee parents use state vouchers at religious schools. (See story, page 5.)

New Dynamics

The scholarship plan for the District of Columbia was drafted by Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis., as part of a broad school-reform package for Washington's ailing school system. The package was attached to the city's fiscal 1996 appropriations bill at the committee level, and no hearings were held.

By attaching it to the spending measure, voucher proponents picked up the support of Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. and the city's congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, both Democrats, who were willing to accept the choice plan as a condition of securing the federal aid the city desperately needed.

"It set up dynamics that most people don't normally see," Ms. Allen said.

The House passed HR 2456 by a vote of 244-177.

The companion Senate bill did not include the voucher plan, and many Republican moderates in that chamber opposed it, including Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., the chairman of the subcommittee with jurisdiction over District of Columbia appropriations.

But Mr. Jeffords accepted a compromise that would have given the City Council veto power over implementation of the voucher plan.

The House endorsed the compromise 211-201. But proponents could not muster the 60 votes necessary to overcome a Democrat-led filibuster in the Senate, although they garnered at least 50 votes in each of four attempts.

Because the voucher plan was attached to the capital city's budget, and the Senate votes came on procedural motions, gauging congressional support for vouchers based on the outcome is difficult, said Julie A. Segal, the legislative counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an advocacy group here that opposes publicly financed vouchers for religious schools.

But Mr. Jennings said he thinks the measure would have passed in the House "even if voucher advocates had attached that amendment to a regular education bill."

In contrast, when the last big vote on school choice occurred in 1994, with Democrats in control of Congress, the Senate defeated a voucher proposal 52-41. The vote came on an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would have allowed $30 million from the Title I compensatory-education program to be used for private school scholarships for low-income children.

Groups on both sides of the voucher issue brought in their heavy artillery for the latest battle, fighting hard both on Capitol Hill and to sway public opinion.

Voucher proponents said the organized opposition, particularly from the major teachers' unions, made it difficult to expand their base of congressional support.

"Its major importance is in the character of the opposition it engendered," said Quentin Quade, the director of the Blum Center for Parental Freedom in Education at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

Campaign Issue?

Observers say it is likely that the debate over vouchers will continue in coming months, especially in light of the upcoming presidential election.

Ms. Allen predicted that President Clinton and congressional Democrats would point to the voucher debate to highlight their support for public education. Meanwhile, she said, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, and other Republicans can showcase their efforts to give low-income children additional educational opportunities.

Mr. Dole said recently that he is preparing new education proposals. His campaign staff did not return phone calls for this story.

Meanwhile, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., told The Washington Post recently that "we're going to come back and ask for [vouchers] again on another vehicle."

Mr. Gunderson has discussed developing a broader scholarship bill based on his proposal for the District of Columbia. A handful of other voucher proposals have also been introduced.

Vol. 15, Issue 29

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