House Endorses Voucher Program for D.C. Schools

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Decrying conditions in the District of Columbia public schools, House Republicans were at the forefront of a 214-206 vote to approve a federal voucher plan for the city's poorest students late last week.

Rep. Dick Armey

President Clinton has promised to veto the $45 billion, five-year plan, which would give government vouchers of up to $3,200 each to about 2,000 children from low-income homes. He and other opponents have insisted that public money should not be used to pay for tuition at religious and other private schools.

But even the staunchest voucher foes made no effort to deny that Washington's schools are troubled by bureaucracy, crumbling buildings, and violence, and that the system's students generally post low test scores.

 Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who is the capital city's nonvoting representative in Congress, offered to work with her GOP colleagues to find private scholarship money for poor students who want to attend private schools. But she fiercely declared that the city's schools need support, not a voucher plan, from Congress.

"I shall not abandon these schools," Ms. Norton emphatically stated in an emotional three-hour floor debate last Thursday.

She and other Democrats also protested that local residents, not Congress, should decide the proposal's fate.

Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., called the voucher supporters "bullies."

"You're stepping on the District [of Columbia] every way you can," she said. "They're down, and it's difficult for them to fight back."

Her remarks infuriated the House majority leader, Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, who is a chief supporter of the measure. Mr. Armey and others argued that Washingtonians are desperate for an alternative to their public schools, and that a voucher system would stimulate competition that would ultimately improve all schools.

GOP supporters said that the bill, S 1502, which the Senate passed late last year, would not take away existing aid from the public system, and that private schools that accepted the scholarships would not be allowed to discriminate. Because the identical bill passed both chambers, the measure now can go straight to the White House.

'Desperately' Needed Aid

Last week's vote did not fall entirely along party lines. Rep. James P. Moran, D-Va., and five other Democrats voted for the vouchers, while 13 GOP members voted against it.

"All it is is $7 million that can only go to poor families," Mr. Moran said in a passionate defense of the plan. "And it lets parents pick the school their children can go to."

Nina Shokraii, a policy analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the debate signaled a change in voucher foes' rhetoric. "They are admitting that 2,000 kids will be helped, where they used to say, 'This is never going to work,'" she said.

The plan's supporters immediately called on Mr. Clinton to reverse his veto stance and sign the bill. Charging that the White House is controlled by liberal-leaning teachers' unions, Mr. Armey said the chief executive must "give these children a chance for a real future."

Clint Bolick, the litigation director for the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based public-interest law firm that defends voucher programs in court, said Mr. Clinton "should not block the schoolhouse doors. These children desperately need educational alternatives."

Private Voucher Funds

One member of the congressionally created financial-control board that now runs most of the city's agencies said local residents were, for the most part, more interested in upgrading the public school system than in vouchers.

"The district is being used as kind of a lab to pilot this program, and they're hoping to import it to other districts," said Joyce A. Ladner, who is also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a centrist think tank here. She said she worried that, without any mechanism for her board to control quality, "families will see little academies sprouting up all over to take this money."

Although it won't come from the federal government, some Washington students found out last week that they will receive a partial tuition voucher for next school year.

The privately backed Washington Scholarship Fund announced the names of 1,002 low-income city students who will receive vouchers of up to $1,700 to attend the schools of their choice.

More than 7,500 students had applied for the aid, which was given out through a computerized lottery system. Republicans used those figures to argue for the need for a federally funded voucher program, saying the 6,500 students who did not receive scholarships would be deeply disappointed.

But some Democrats, including Rep. William L. Clay of Missouri, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, charged that many voucher recipients would be disappointed because there are not enough slots for new students in affordable private schools in the Washington area, and private schools could turn away voucher recipients.

And the publicity surrounding the House vote has "created false hope in the minds of schoolchildren and their parents," he said, adding that "federally funded vouchers will not be available here any time in the 105th Congress" because of the president's likely veto.

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