November 5, 1997 in Nation/World

Tuition Voucher, School Tax Break Proposals Defeated

Rene Sanchez Washington Post
 

The House Tuesday night rejected a proposal that would have given needy students across the country tuition vouchers to attend private schools, handing a surprising defeat to an initiative that has been atop the education agenda of many Republican leaders.

Leaping into one of the most contentious issues in education, lawmakers decided against adopting the unprecedented voucher program, 228 to 191, after hours of furious debate on how to improve public schools, especially those in the nation’s poorest communities.

Democrats in the House denounced the measure as an attack on public education, and they persuaded about two dozen Republican lawmakers to oppose it despite the pleas of Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and Majority Leader Richard K. Armey, R-Tex., both of whom strongly supported the idea.

Rep. William “Bill” Clay, D-Mo., led opposition to the bill, warning that its passage would have sent a “clear and chilling signal that Republicans have declared war on public education.”

The vote was the latest among many recent political clashes between President Clinton and many Republican leaders in Congress over education. Both sides, sensing widespread voter concern on the subject, have made the issue a top priority. But they have radically different visions of what the federal government’s role in schools should be.

Its supporters vowed to bring the issue up again soon. “We knew this would be a tough vote, but it’s a good start,” said Michael Donohue, a spokesman for Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., the bill’s sponsor. “This issue’s not going away.” The Senate on Tuesday shelved a bill that would have helped parents pay for private schooling partly through tax breaks.

Only two cities, Cleveland and Milwaukee, now give a select number of students from poor families publicly paid tuition vouchers to attend private schools. The programs are quite limited, however, because courts, citing the separation of church and state, have prevented religious schools from receiving the voucher money.

The House bill would have allowed states to use some of the federal money they receive now as general aid for elementary and secondary schools to create scholarships for poor children who want to attend private schools, including religious ones.

But opponents of vouchers in the House argued the stipends would, at best, have helped only a few poor students at the expense of many others and would have drained money from the classrooms that need it most.

“This bill will leave our public schools in ruins in search of a panacea for a few,” said Rep. Matthew G. Martinez, D-Calif.

Lawmakers who favored the idea said it would have given public education a badly needed injection of competition, and offered poor parents some of the same schooling choices affluent parents have. Republican leaders also said too many attempts over the years to revitalize public schools have failed.

The Senate bill would have allowed parents or others to contribute $2,500 per child to a savings account and withdraw the interest tax-free to pay for a wide range of educational expenses, including home computers and tuition costs.

Sens. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., and Robert G. Torricelli, D-N.J., sponsors of the bill, fell four votes short of the 60 needed to cut off a filibuster and force action on the measure. They failed by the same number in a similar effort Friday.

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HOW THEY VOTED

On this vote, a “yes” vote was a vote to end the filibuster and consider the bill and a “no” vote was a vote to block consideration of the bill.

Voting yes: Larry Craig, R-Idaho; Dirk Kempthorne, R-Idaho; Slade Gorton, R-Wash. Voting no: Patty Murray, D-Wash.

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