Budget Panel Hearing Puts Spotlight On Voucher Plan

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Vouchers again emerged as a contentious topic on Capitol Hill as members of the House Budget Committee, several prominent lawmakers, and philanthropists probed ways to enhance school performance last week.

GOP leaders granted Republican Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida the spotlight to promote his state's accountability plan, which assigns letter grades to schools and grants vouchers to students attending schools deemed to be failing.

Gov. Jeb Bush testifies on Capitol Hill. He called Florida's voucher initiative "an empowerment program for the disadvantaged."
--Benjamin Tice Smith

The state's much-publicized plan ties a school's grade of A to F almost entirely to student performance on state assessments. ("Schools Hit by Vouchers Fight Back," Sept. 15, 1999.)

The Florida program elicited praise from many of the committee's Republicans, while some Democrats went on the offensive.

Later in the hearing, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley urged members instead to consider public-school-choice and accountability plans touted by President Clinton as paths to better school performance.

Late last week, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., was poised to introduce a long-awaited bill that would allow a broader use of federal Title I money for disadvantaged students attending failing schools.

Under a concept called "portability," Title I funding would follow individual students to the public, private, or religious school of their parents' choice.

Signs of Success

Florida's new system got off the ground this fall when students from two Pensacola elementary schools with what the state termed chronic performance problems were given vouchers to attend other public or private schools. The number of schools where vouchers are permitted could climb in coming years.

Gov. Bush said that, so far, the plan has shown signs of success. He sought to debunk many criticisms of vouchers, which he called "opportunity scholarships."

"It's been fun, in all honesty, to watch what happens with the myths on what happens when you empower parents and let them make a decision," the Florida governor said. "This is not a welfare program for the rich; this is an empowerment program for the disadvantaged."

However, one Democrat on the House panel from Mr. Bush's state was quick to question the governor's arguments. Rep. Jim Davis said the accountability plan would trap failing schools at the bottom of the state list because of its grading scale.

"It will force an experiment using our most vulnerable students," the Florida Democrat contended. "This grading plan pits schools against one another, and therefore, we will always have schools that will get an F. No matter how much a struggling school improves, many will still be at the bottom and be voucherized."

While Gov. Bush acknowledged that long-term results from the program were still to come, he said he strongly believes Florida's system holds much promise for improving poor- performing schools.

Only those schools where more than 60 percent of students fall below basic levels in mathematics and English receive failing grades, he said.

Secretary Riley, meanwhile, urged the Budget Committee to approve increases in the federal spending blueprint for education. The same day, the House appropriations subcommittee on education debated a spending proposal for fiscal 2000.

Mr. Riley also promoted the Clinton administration's long-standing education initiatives, such as hiring 100,000 new teachers to reduce class sizes and providing federal funding to help pay interest on about $25 billion in school construction bonds.

Asked by Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich, R-Ohio, for his thoughts on the administration's controversial school construction plan, Gov. Bush gave a near-endorsement.

"Honestly, I'll take all the money you guys can give me," Gov. Bush said. But he quickly added, "we're doing it anyway without federal dollars."

Rep. Kasich also said that he supports vouchers, but he added that he is disheartened by what he sees as voucher opponents' refusal to debate the issues.

Vol. 19, Issue 5, Page 24

Published in Print: September 29, 1999, as Budget Panel Hearing Puts Spotlight On Voucher Plan
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