Voucher Bill Fails on Bipartisan Vote in House

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Striking a surprise blow to Republican leaders last week, the House rejected a bill that would have allowed states and districts to give needy students federally financed tuition vouchers to help them attend private and parochial schools.

The HELP Scholarship proposal was a rising star in the school choice debate that has topped the educational agendas of Republican leaders in recent weeks. But the House rejected the measure in a comfortable 228-191 vote last week--just days after members voted to allow it to come to the floor without a committee vote or debate. ("Voucher Plan Advances to House Floor," Nov. 5, 1997.)

Civil Rights Issues

Civil rights protections became a key point of debate when the bill, HR 2746, came to the floor for a vote on the evening of Nov. 4.

In an Oct. 29 letter sent to Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., one of the chief supporters of the measure, the U.S. Catholic Conference, said it opposed the bill, in part because the plan would not adequately enforce civil rights laws in schools where vouchers could be used. That letter was widely distributed by voucher opponents early last week in their lobbying efforts to kill the HELP, or Helping Empower Low-Income Parents, legislation.

The debate on the House floor generated some harsh rhetoric. Calling the measure "a clear and chilling signal that Republicans have declared war on public education," Rep. William L. Clay, the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, argued that it would strip away 30 years of civil rights protections for minorities. Private and parochial schools, he said, would not be subject to the same laws as public schools, allowing them to deny admission or other services to any student they chose.

Republicans and the measure's leading Democratic supporter in the House vowed to continue the debate through other legislation. They focused on HR 2746's significance as the first piece of voucher legislation to come to the House floor as a stand-alone bill, instead of an amendment to other bills.

Rep. Floyd H. Flake

"The movement is definitely not going to stop because of that vote," Rep. Floyd H. Flake of New York, a Democrat who helped sponsor the HELP Scholarship bill, said in an interview.

"We will be back for another debate on another day," said Beau Phillips, a spokesman for Mr. Riggs. "It's only a matter of time before the members that are opposing this will eventually succumb to public pressure."

Had it passed the House, HR 2746 faced opposition in the Senate and an almost-certain veto from President Clinton if it reached his desk. Even if the measure had been signed into law, states and local districts would have been required to pass measures to allow the use of federal Title VI block grant funding for the vouchers.

Further, the Title VI omnibus grant program--which received $310 million in fiscal 1997--might have been at risk of a line-item veto by President Clinton if the legislation passed, warned G. Patrick Canan, the assistant director for government relations at the Catholic Conference in Washington.

Full-Force Lobbying

A House Republican aide said education groups had lobbied Democrats and moderate Republicans in full force in the days before the vote to kill the measure. "The unions threw an extraordinarily large amount of resources into defeating this," he said.

But teachers' union officials said last week's result was a signal that Republicans do not have enough votes in their own party to pass a national voucher program.

Rep. Marge Roukema

Adele Robinson, a senior professional associate for the National Education Association, the 2.3 million-member union that is among the most ardent of voucher opponents, said the move signaled that the push for school vouchers is losing momentum ... "People said to themselves, 'This is too big a bite for me,'" she said.

Bruce Hunter, the government relations director for the American Association of School Administrators in Alexandria, Va., said his group had encouraged its members to persuade their representatives in the House that their constituents opposed the plan. "Hearing from home made a lot of people concerned," he said.

Further, Mr. Hunter said, the measure was weakened by its timing, coming right after successful House votes for vouchers for low-income Washington students and a measure to create tax-free educational savings accounts that could be used for private school tuition. The savings-account legislation stalled in the Senate, while a District of Columbia appropriations bill containing the voucher language was expected to pass the Senate late last week.

In addition, Mr. Hunter said, "I think [House Speaker Newt Gingrich] overestimated the strength of the idea." Mr. Gingrich had been a forceful backer of the bill.

Key Debate Voices

Rep. Marge Roukema, R-N.J., made her feelings clear early on when she voted on Oct. 31 against sending the voucher bill to the House floor. A longstanding and vocal opponent of vouchers on the Education and the Workforce Committee, she said in an interview that she hoped last week's vote would kill support for the federal voucher concept among her party's leaders.

While she declined to speculate on why her colleagues voted against the bill, she said she recently had been approached by many Republican colleagues who were interested in her views on the issue.

"This voucher system is really denying, to the vast majority of students, the need for resources to be going to improving their schools and the quality of instruction, while they're giving money to a select few," she argued.

Another moderate Republican, Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert of New York, said he and several other GOP colleagues also voted against the bill because they oppose the concept of vouchers.

"There are a lot of Republicans that don't believe in vouchers," he said in an interview. "It has nothing to do with personalities, nothing to do with the speaker.

"We are not providing adequate funding for public education," he added. "Therefore, I would oppose any plan that would divert resources."

Many Republicans, though, argue that private and religious schools and colleges already receive federal funding or services for their students through programs such as Title I, Head Start, and student aid for higher education.

Those advocates, however, will lose their chief supporter from the other side of the aisle this week. Mr. Flake is resigning Nov. 15 to return to New York as pastor of his African Methodist Episcopalian church. The church also runs a 480-student, pre-K to 8th grade school that could benefit from a federal voucher plan.

But Mr. Flake has vowed to lobby on Capitol Hill and in statehouses to promote vouchers for low-income students.

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