House Passes D.C. Voucher Bill 203-202; Veto Threatened

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By a razor-thin margin, the House late last week passed a controversial measure that would grant vouchers to needy Washington students seeking to attend private schools.

By a 203-202 vote--with Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., casting a rare tie-breaking vote--the House approved an amended District of Columbia appropriations bill that includes a $7 million plan for vouchers. The vote was split mainly along party lines, with a few Republicans crossing over to join Democrats in voting against the bill.

President Clinton had already criticized the voucher proposal, which is not included in the companion bill in the Senate. The Senate has yet to vote on a final spending bill for Washington.

Speaker Newt Gingrich

The Office of Management and Budget released a statement saying the House bill would "set a dangerous precedent." OMB officials said they would advise the president to veto any bill that included the vouchers.

The provision in hr 2607 would provide scholarships of up to $3,200 each to help about 2,000 needy students attend private or parochial schools of their choice.

"What this vote is about is whether or not 2,000 children have a chance to go to college or go to jail," said Speaker Gingrich, a chief sponsor.

But the move encountered strong resistance from Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., who said federal lawmakers had no right to impose vouchers on the city.

"The district's public schools desperately need every cent of money," she said. "Every child in the district would have a place in after-school programs with the $7 million that would go to private and religious schools." Ms. Norton was among a group of House Democrats who led a march in Washington last Thursday to protest the voucher provision.

Competing Agendas

The voucher vote capped a week filled with partisan jabs and policy disagreements between House Republicans and Democrats.

Leaders of both parties held media events to sound off on their education priorities. Each side pushed initiatives that showed little bipartisan agreement.

A literacy program that emphasizes teacher training and tutorial-assistance grants, charter schools, and other school choice efforts will be Republican priorities in the House in the coming weeks, GOP leaders announced.

Rep. William L. Clay

The Republican members plan an "education blitz" on the House floor next week, where they hope to bring several pieces of education-related legislation up for debate. Those pieces include changes to the charter school law and a new tax-free "education savings account" plan, by which parents could save up to $2,500 annually for an array of education expenses, including private school tuition and home schooling. Bills that would authorize both such proposals passed House committees late last week.

At a news conference, Republican leaders packaged their initiatives into "assignments" for the next few weeks. While they did not mention a controversial block grant proposal that is helping tie up debate in a House-Senate appropriations conference committee, they emphasized their desire to pass a nonbinding resolution that would call for channeling 90 percent of federal K-12 funding to local schools.

With Congress scheduled to recess in early November, it was an unusual week to introduce new initiatives.

Nevertheless, Democrats responded with their own agenda last week, restating many of the proposals they introduced earlier this year: $5 billion for school construction interest subsidies, support for local efforts to restructure troubled public schools, and expansion of Head Start and other early-childhood programs.

Democratic leaders also want initiatives to reduce class sizes, wire classrooms to the Internet, and offer incentives for qualified teachers to teach in high-need areas. Democrats also urged school choice, but only among public schools. They blasted the GOP voucher plan for Washington. Rep. William L. Clay, D-Mo., charged that the "Republican agenda that plays politics with our public schools."

But members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee came together to approve language that would change the main federal charter school law.

The measure, passed 24-8, would increase the federal funding available for charter schools to $100 million in fiscal 1998--up from its fiscal 1997 appropriation of $15 million--and target that money to states that give the most flexibility to charter schools.

While many members on both sides of the committee hearing room sang the praises of charters, some Democrats were more cautious about putting too much faith into just one type of reform.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who said he worried that federal funds could be misused if charters were not under enough supervision.

The House Democrats have spent several months compiling what they consider their best education proposals into their package, which they will push next year, said Mark Zuckerman, a spokesman for the Democrats on the Education and the Workforce Committee. "These are things that in the second session [starting in January] will be front and center," he said. "We wanted to start talking about them now."

Lawmakers have been so tied up with other education matters, such as the debate over President Clinton's national testing proposal, that the Republicans are only now beginning to have time to promote their new initiatives, said Jay Diskey, a spokesman for Republicans on the House education panel.

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