Education Secretary William J. Bennett on Wednesday sent Congress another proposal to provide educational vouchers to parents of low-income students, calling the plan a "new idea" that could win congressional approval, although similar legislation failed two years ago.
Under the plan, vouchers averaging $600 each would be made available to parents of nearly 5 million disadvantaged students for use in public or private schools. Parents could choose to keep their children in their current schools or to transfer them. The school selected by the parents would receive the government money.
Bennett declared the plan "a ticket to find the best possible schools" and said it would provide parents with "a greater opportunity to improve their children's lives."
But when the Reagan Administration proposed another voucher plan in 1983, it died in Congress after a single hearing. At a news conference Wednesday, Bennett and other Education Department officials portrayed the latest proposal as different enough to fare better and asserted that the political climate has changed as well.
Plan Angers Critics
However, critics reacted angrily to the plan immediately, signifying another ideological battle that will probably persist as a voucher bill moves through Congress.
Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Assn., described the plan as "a sham," noting that $600 will not go far toward tuition in many private schools. Likewise, Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the proposal amounts to a "cannibalization" of the $3.2-billion Title 1 program for low-income students that it is intended to replace.
Both teacher organizations instead called for expansion of the Title 1 program, which they said fails in its present form to provide special educational services for all the disadvantaged students who need them.
Under the voucher plan, schools would receive the funds only after they pass through parents' hands, and supporters of the plan said they hoped that this would head off critics' charges that the federal government was providing aid to parochial schools at the expense of public education.
Other Programs Cited
Moreover, Bennett said, the prospect of receiving the federal aid should spur private and public schools to compete for disadvantaged students. The secretary likened the plan to existing programs embodying choice, such as Pell Grants for low-income college students and the GI Bill, which helps veterans get education.
Distinguishing between the new and old proposals, Education Department officials made it clear that they hope the contrast will inspire parents to pressure Congress to pass the legislation, which is expected to be introduced soon.
The officials said Bennett's plan makes it mandatory for the nation's 16,000 school districts to participate, and the 1983 proposal did not. This would ensure an opportunity for every parent to exercise a choice, thereby giving parents more control of their children's education, they argued.
In addition, they noted, the new plan allows parents more flexibility in using the vouchers for tuition than did the 1983 proposal, which was advanced when Terrel H. Bell was education secretary under Reagan.
Albert Menendez, research director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, challenged the constitutionality of Bennett's plan because it would allow public funds to be used in religious schools, saying the proposal "runs afoul of a decade of court rulings."
But representatives of several religious organizations disagreed. The Rev. Thomas Gallagher, secretary of education for the U.S. Catholic Conference, hailed the voucher plan as "a contribution to achievement of greater parental choice in education."
As for the bill's chances in Congress, Bennett conceded that he was "not predicting a sweep," but he said that "one can never underestimate the power of a new idea."
The legislation has a powerful sponsor in Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, which will have jurisdiction over the bill. In a statement, Hatch praised the proposal as "innovative and sensible" and vowed to give it "high priority for serious consideration."
But in the House, California Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, called the proposal a "gimmick (that) is irresponsible public policy and a waste of taxpayer money."
The bill's House sponsor is Rep. Patrick L. Swindall, a first-term Republican from Georgia who said in an interview that he and other conservative congressmen would mount a grass-roots campaign to inform low-income parents of the benefits of the voucher system.