Bush’s Latest ‘Voucher’ Idea May Face Same Fate as Others

‘Pell Grant for Kids’ plan criticized by lawmakers.

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Democrats and some Republicans in Congress are objecting to a new program President Bush proposed in his State of the Union address as another attempt to secure federal funding for private school vouchers.

The program, dubbed “Pell Grants for Kids,” would provide grants on a competitive basis to states, school districts, cities, and nonprofit organizations to create scholarship programs for low-income students in schools that have missed their achievement targets under the No Child Left Behind Act, and in high schools in which graduation rates are lower than 60 percent.

State of the Initiatives

President Bush’s education proposals from his past State of the Union addresses have had a mixed record of success.

Touted the then-just-passed No Child Left Behind Act as a bipartisan effort to craft new school accountability requirements. Urged Congress to improve Head Start, but didn’t propose any specifics.

RESULTS: Head Start was finally reauthorized last year, but without many of the Bush administration’s key ideas.

Called for spending $450 million over three years to recruit and train mentors for middle school students and children of prisoners.

RESULTS:Congress created two mentoring programs, funded at $50 million each.

Unveiled a “Jobs for the 21st Century” initiative that included a $100 million reading-intervention program for middle and high school students. Also proposed larger Pell Grants for students who take challenging courses in high school, and a program to encourage math and science professionals to teach in K-12 classrooms.

RESULTS: In 2006, Congress approved Academic Competitiveness Grants, which give extra Pell Grant money to students who take a rigorous high school curriculum. Congress financed the Striving Readers program, although only at $25 million. The proposal on math and science professionals in the classroom hasn’t come to fruition.

Called for increasing the maximum amount of the Pell Grant. In budget, proposed increasing the frequency of testing for high school students under the NCLB law.

RESULTS: In 2007, lawmakers approved the College Cost Reduction Act, which is increasing maximum Pell Grants to $5,400 over five years. But the high school proposal hasn’t gained traction.

Called for extra help for students who struggle with math and money to help train teachers to lead Advanced Placement courses. Reiterated call for attracting math and science professionals to teach in K-12 schools.

RESULTS: Congress in 2007 authorized the Math Now program, aimed at helping improve instruction in that subject, but provided no funding for it in the fiscal 2008 budget. Under the America Competes Act of 2007, lawmakers authorized additional funding for training AP teachers.

Urged Congress to reauthorize the NCLB law. White House proposals included permitting students in underperforming schools to use federal funds to transfer to private schools.

RESULTS: The NCLB reauthorization stalled in Congress last year, although the chairmen of the House and Senate education committees have pledged to renew work on the law.

“We have seen how Pell Grants help low-income students realize their full potential,” Mr. Bush said, referring to the popular federal aid program for higher education. “Now let’s apply that same spirit to help liberate poor children trapped in failing public schools.”

Under the proposal, priority for the grants would be given to applicants that proposed to augment the federal aid with other sources of funding and that represent large numbers of low-performing schools, said Casey Ruberg, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, dismissed the president’s proposal last week.

“Yet again, American families heard empty rhetoric about improving our schools. But the president didn’t commit the resources to expand educational opportunity,” Sen. Kennedy said in a statement. Instead, Mr. Bush “again proposed to siphon scarce resources from our public schools to create new voucher programs,” the senator said.

Last year, Mr. Bush put forth $300 million in his fiscal 2008 budget proposal for “promise” and “opportunity” scholarships, which, like the Pell Grants for Kids proposal, would have enabled students in struggling schools to transfer to better-performing schools, including secular and religious private schools, using federal aid. The proposal never gained traction in Congress.

However, Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, the ranking Republican on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, praised the latest idea.

“Educational choice is a hallmark of our higher education system and a proven success in our nation’s capital,” Rep. McKeon said in a statement.

Other Republicans on the House panel disagreed.

“It’s just a repackaging of the voucher programs we’ve seen before,” said Rep. Judy Biggert of Illinois. “I don’t think [vouchers] are the answer to the problems facing our schools.”

Religious Schools ‘Summit’

Asked why President Bush and Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings believe the new program will be viable in Congress when similar attempts to expand private school choice with federal funding have fallen flat with lawmakers, Ms. Ruberg said: “The president and the secretary have always thought that kids in the lowest-performing schools deserve more options, and they will continue to fight for those opportunities.”

In his Jan. 28 speech to a joint session of Congress, the president also threatened to veto any spending bill that does not cut congressional earmarks in half. Earmarks typically are allotments for pet projects pushed through the appropriations process by members of the House and the Senate with little or no scrutiny.

The $550 billion omnibus spending measure for most federal programs in fiscal 2008, including those in the Department of Education, contained over $10 billion in earmarks, according to the White House.

And Mr. Bush called on Congress to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act. ("Key Democrats Join President in Seeking to Revive NCLB Renewal," February 6, 2008.)

State of the Union

View President Bush's 2008 State of the Union address, as well as all state of the union addresses dating back to 1945, courtesy of C-SPAN.

Mr. Bush also called for a White House “summit” meeting on inner-city children and religious schools to highlight a lack of educational options for urban students. The event would bring together national, state, and local leaders in education, research, philanthropy, business, and community development to explore the challenges facing private schools in inner cities, particularly religious schools, according to a White House background document.

Religious schools in inner cities are closing for financial reasons, administration officials said. From 1996 to 2004, nearly 1,400 inner-city religious schools closed, displacing 355,000 students, according to the White House document. The event, which will likely take place this spring, would seek to pinpoint solutions to the problem.

“I’m not sure if there’s anything in terms of a concrete program that will come out of [the summit],” said Sister Dale McDonald, the director of public policy and educational research at the National Catholic Educational Association, a Washington group that represents 200,000 educators.

Nevertheless, Sister McDonald said she was glad the White House was using the “bully pulpit” to “bring together people who might have some means to address the problem.”

21st Century Centers

President Bush will also propose $800 million in scholarships to help students from low-income families enroll in after-school and summer programs, including those run by religious organizations. The proposal was included in the White House’s background paper on last week’s address, but wasn’t mentioned in the speech.

Some education advocates said they fear the money will come out of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, an Education Department program that is being financed at about $1 billion for fiscal 2008.

That money flows from the federal government to school districts and nonprofit organizations operating after-school and summer programs that primarily serve low-income students. Advocates are concerned that the Bush administration may want to redirect those funds, providing them directly to parents to help cover the cost of after-school and summer programs.

A spokeswoman for the Education Department declined to say whether the funds for the scholarships would flow from another program. She said more details would be available with the release of the president’s fiscal year 2009 budget, which was scheduled for Feb. 4.

PHOTO: President Bush autographs copies of his State of the Union address as he leaves the House chamber. He called for action on renewing the No Child Left Behind Act.
—Tim Sloan/AP-Pool

Vol. 27, Issue 22, Pages 20-21

Published in Print: February 6, 2008, as Bush’s Latest ‘Voucher’ Idea May Face Same Fate as Others
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