Lieberman Voucher Record Attracts Attention

By Joetta L. Sack — September 06, 2000 9 min read

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman’s support for school voucher experiments and restructured education programs has raised some qualms among teachers’ union officials who otherwise strongly support his selection as the Democratic nominee for vice president.

His conservative fans, meanwhile, are wondering whether Mr. Lieberman’s record means they would have an ally in the White House if the Connecticut senator and the party’s presidential nominee, Vice President Al Gore, are elected in November.

Observers from both camps are waiting to see if Mr. Lieberman’s presence in the race helps inspire a more interesting debate this fall and beyond on reforming federal education programs.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman

Age: 58
Education: Yale University, B.A. and J.D., 1964 and 1967, respectively.
Career Highlights:
  • Member, Connecticut Senate, 1971-1982. Served as majority leader, in the state Senate, 1975-1981.
  • Connecticut Attorney General, 1983-1989.
  • U.S. Senator, 1989-present.
Key Education-Related Votes in Congress:
  • Sponsored the proposed Public Education Reinvention, Reinvestment, and Responsibility Act, S 2254, a plan for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The measure, which was introduced on March 21, 2000, would have consolidated some federal programs while giving more money in exchange for greater accountability. The bill failed, 84-13, as an amendment to S 2, the Senate ESEA legislation, on May 9, 2000.
  • Voted in favor of expanding Education Savings Accounts through a GOP-backed proposal to allow parents to set up tax-free accounts for a wide variety of education-related expenses, including private school tuition and home schooling expenses. He voted for HR 2646 on April 23, 1998, and again for a conference-committee version of the bill on June 24, 1998. That bill was later vetoed by President Clinton, but Congress took up another version of the legislation this year, S 1134, and Sen. Lieberman voted in favor of it on March 2, 2000.
  • Voted in favor of HR 800, the so-called Ed-Flex legislation, to expand a Department of Education program to allow states more flexibility in using federal money. The measure was signed into law by President Clinton on April 21, 1999.
  • Voted in favor of an amendment to the Ed-Flex bill that would have authorized President Clinton’s legislation aimed at hiring 100,000 new teachers and reducing class sizes. The amendment failed, 55-44, on March 19, 1999.
  • Co-sponsored S 1502, the District of Columbia Student Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bill that would have allowed disadvantaged students in Washington to receive vouchers to attend private or religious schools. The measure passed the Senate by unanimous consent on May 8, 1998, but was vetoed by President Clinton.

Shortly after Mr. Gore named his running mate last month, Sen. Lieberman assured liberal Democrats that he would defer to Mr. Gore on the matter of vouchers—which the party and its teachers’ union allies oppose—and other issues. And in his prime-time speech during the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, the Connecticut senator focused on blasting the education platform put forth by Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the GOP nominee, and emphasizing what he sees as the contrast between it and the philosophy of the Gore-Lieberman ticket.

“We see education through a different set of eyes,” Mr. Lieberman told the audience in the Aug. 16 address.

He added, “We are going to target more education funding to the schools that need it most, to rebuild and modernize our crumbling classrooms, and to provide all children with the skills they need to succeed in the 21st Century. And we’re going to do one other thing that our Republican friends will not: We are going to treat the people who teach our children like the professionals that they are.”

Voucher, ESEA Proposals

Vice President Gore’s selection of Sen. Lieberman a month ago brought a spate of news stories about the differences between them in some policy areas, including education. In particular, the two have differed on the use of government-financed vouchers to help pay students’ tuition in private schools, an idea that Mr. Gore adamantly opposes.

Sen. Lieberman, who chairs the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, has supported experimenting with vouchers for disadvantaged children. For instance, in 1998 he co-sponsored a measure that would have created vouchers for low-income students in the Washington schools. That measure was later vetoed by President Clinton.

In addition, he voted in favor of the GOP- backed Education Savings Accounts plan on several occasions. That plan would expand the current program to allow parents to use tax-free accounts for a wide variety of educational expenses, including private school tuition.

He also co- sponsored legislation in the current Congress that would have dramatically overhauled federal programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The proposal, which was backed by the DLC and Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., would have restructured and consolidated some federal programs and required greater accountability in exchange for a large increase in federal funds, a proposal that some liberals viewed as a block grant.

Privately, the proposal was viewed as too radical by the White House and some members of the teachers’ unions. S 2254 never came before the Senate education committee, but last May Sen. Lieberman offered it as an amendment to the Senate Republicans’ ESEA bill considered by the full Senate. The amendment failed, 84-13. But it earned praise from other Republicans and Gov. Bush, who said it mirrored some of his own proposals. (“Moderate Democrats Aim To Restructure K-12 Programs,” Feb. 16, 2000.)

Even in announcing his plans last November, Sen. Lieberman said: “We are encouraged by the fact that Governor Bush has proposed a reform that is remarkably similar to our proposal.” He officially introduced the amendment in March.

Sen. Lieberman has also worked on efforts to curb violent and obscene musical lyrics with former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, an appointee of President Reagan’s who is one of the country’s foremost conservative authors and commentators. Mr. Bennett praised the senator’s stands in a Aug. 16, Wall Street Journal opinion piece, and said he would make an excellent vice presidential candidate—for Gov. Bush.

Mr. Bennett also wrote that he expected Sen. Lieberman, if elected vice president, to continue to advocate school vouchers in a Gore administration.

Andrew Rotherham, the education adviser for the Progressive Policy Institute, the DLC’s think tank, sought to put the Democratic ticket’s differences in what he sees as the proper context.

“On the big issues around education, these guys are in agreement, and they have ideas that will not only appeal to a lot of people, but will go a long way towards improving education,” he said. “It speaks well for Vice President Gore that he picked someone with whom he does have policy disagreements.”

Dan Gerstein, a spokesman for Sen. Lieberman, said the senator has not changed his position on vouchers and other education issues. “He still supports testing and vouchers as a mechanism for school reform,” Mr. Gerstein said last week. “However, he recognizes that after President Gore makes his decision, [Sen. Lieberman] will support his position 100 percent despite his personal stance on the issue.”

‘Shut Down’ by Unions?

The senator’s past stands, though, still worry National Education Association President Bob Chase.

“We are a bit concerned that we disagree on some issues related to vouchers and block grants,” Mr. Chase said in an interview in Los Angeles during the Democratic convention. “But these are issues we can sit down and work out.”

Mr. Chase, who is also from Connecticut, said he has known Sen. Lieberman for many years and considers him to be a “good man, and decent person.”

Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said she had spoken with Sen. Lieberman about his support for vouchers. But, she added that the union is otherwise very happy with his voting record on education. “I completely disagree with his support for vouchers, but I also know he is committed to public education,” she said in an interview. “So I’m very comfortable with him.”

Supporters of school choice have offered varying assessments of how the senator’s education views have been, or will be, affected by his elevation to the Democratic ticket.

Lisa Graham Keegan, a Republican who is the state superintendent of schools in Arizona, contended that the teachers’ unions had stifled Mr. Lieberman’s opinions on vouchers and other school choice issues.

“He has a great history ... but he was in conflict with the unions, and he was immediately shut down,” she asserted in an interview at the GOP’s temporary headquarters in Los Angeles during the Democratic convention.

Ms. Keegan added that the conservative Education Leaders Council, of which she is a member, has consistently worked with Sen. Lieberman. And, she said, he is one of the few Democrats whom council members speak with regularly. The leaders’ council, which includes several state schools chiefs and other state policymakers, also supported the ESEA plan put forth by Mr. Lieberman and the DLC.

“It was a great piece [of legislation],” Ms. Keegan added. “It isn’t just school choice; ... it’s the basic restructuring of the federal role.”

In Washington, though, at least one school choice advocate said she has watched as Sen. Lieberman moved away from the voucher camp in recent months.

Nina Shokraii Rees, an education policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation who is an adviser to Bush campaign, said she did not expect Sen. Lieberman to continue to support forms of school choice and other policies favored mainly by conservatives.

“He’s probably going to move farther and farther away from it,” Ms. Rees said. “It’s too risky to play with the unions at this stage.”

But Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based group that promotes school choice and charter schools, disagreed. “He’s an avid reformer who has broken the mold a number of times and dared to go out on a limb for both choice for disadvantaged students, as well as charter schools expansion,” she said. “I suspect he will continue to be receptive to ideas.”

Last year, the National Catholic Educational Association gave Sen. Lieberman an award because of his views on school choice. The group’s president, Leonard DeFiore, praised the efforts of Mr. Lieberman, who is the first Jewish American to run on a major party’s national ticket.

“Instead of knee-jerk comments that vouchers are aid to religious schools, or that they will destroy public education, we may now have reasonable bipartisan discussions about the merits of school choice and vouchers,” Mr. DeFiore said in a statement released after the senator’s selection by Mr. Gore.

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