A senior Department of Education official faced a sympathetic crowd last week as he promoted the voucher elements of President Bush’s plans for renewing the No Child Left Behind Act—ideas that will surely prove a tougher sell in the Democratic-controlled Congress.
“This set of reauthorization proposals really shows the administration reaffirming its commitment to school choice,” Morgan Brown, who heads the department’s office of innovation and improvement, said at an education conference hosted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Advocates for Roman Catholic schools have long backed the idea of publicly financed vouchers to pay tuition at Catholic and other nonpublic schools.
The annual “Congressional Advocacy Days” of the education department of the bishops’ conference, held March 11-13 in Washington, gathered roughly 75 participants, including Catholic-school administrators and advocates.
Under the Bush plan, if a public school failed to make adequate yearly progress for at least five years under the NCLB law, its students would be eligible for vouchers worth about $4,000 each to attend religious or secular private schools. Last week, the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, introduced a bill largely mirroring that plan.
The Rev. William F. Davis, the interim education secretary for the bishops’ conference, said the group generally supports the concept of the GOP plan, but he said $4,000 would be insufficient to cover tuition in many Catholic schools, especially high schools.
Of the nation’s nearly 7,600 Catholic schools in 2005-06, average costs per pupil were $4,268 at elementary schools and $7,200 at secondary schools, according to the Bishops’ conference.
Mr. Brown also highlighted President Bush’s plan to create a separate federally funded voucher program through competitive grants to local communities, with preference given to areas with large numbers of schools identified for improvement under the NCLB law.
Leading Democrats in Congress have made clear that they consider vouchers a nonstarter.
Despite his enthusiasm for the Bush initiatives, Mr. Brown emphasized that Washington’s role in expanding private school vouchers is modest.
“Much of the real action on school choice is in the states,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2007 edition of Education Week