Voucher Defeat Likely, but Reforms Afoot

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Congress this week expects to give a ritual burial to an idea championed by conservatives and endorsed by President Bush: government vouchers for private school tuition. But little-noticed developments on two other fronts show that the movement to give more parents more choices beyond the public school system is still moving ahead.

Legislation that would allow the use of federal school money for private tutoring is almost certain to be enacted. In another significant precedent, parents now will be allowed to sock away $2,000 a year, earning tax-free interest, for private school tuition.

"It's all a step in the right direction," said Christina Culver of Children First America, a group that promotes school vouchers.

This year's school reform debate shows again that big causes--in this case, offering private alternatives to struggling public schools--often advance in small steps. The question is whether those increments over time add up to something more.

Opponents of vouchers insist they will hold the line. On Tuesday, the Senate is expected to reject a proposal by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) to spend $50 million to launch a voucher program for students from low-income families in as many as three states and 10 local school systems.

Last month, the House rejected similar proposals advanced by the GOP leadership. Even Gregg acknowledged that he lacks the votes to win. Rejection of the Gregg proposal should close the current congressional debate concerning vouchers, which Bush conceded weeks ago, and clear the way soon afterward for Senate passage of a bill authorizing federal aid to elementary and secondary schools.

But on this issue, both sides know there always is another fight around the corner. Backers claim vouchers are a matter of justice and sound policy--justice, they say, because poor children should not be trapped in failing schools; policy, they say, because public schools will benefit from private competition.

California Twice Has Rejected Vouchers

Opponents argue, just as fervently, that vouchers drain scarce funds away from public schools, do nothing to solve inequities in the education system and are impractical on a large scale.

Twice in the last eight years, Californians have voted on voucher initiatives. Both, including last year's Proposition 38, were soundly rejected. Michigan voters also defeated a voucher proposal in November.

Despite such defeats, voucher proponents can point to some progress in recent years as publicly funded programs have begun in Cleveland, Milwaukee and Florida, and dozens of privately funded efforts have sprouted nationwide.

And this year, proponents claim they have wrung a couple of significant concessions from Congress.

First, the education savings accounts were part of the massive tax cut bill that Bush signed into law Thursday.

The provision raises to $2,000, from $500, the amount of money a family can set aside each year in special accounts that earn interest tax-free. And it expands the uses of such funds. Previously, they were mainly limited to higher education expenses. Now they may be used for tuition in elementary and secondary schools, private or parochial.

Accounts Could Help With College Costs

In years past, President Clinton, a strong voucher critic, killed similar legislation by veto. Bush, a voucher proponent, endorsed the idea in his presidential campaign and got it enacted.

The money at issue is modest. Tax experts say the provision will cost the federal treasury about $6.4 billion over 10 years. And many people will continue to use the accounts to save for college rather than for private schooling. That's because the tax advantages are greater the longer the money is allowed to grow.

But anti-voucher groups such as the National Education Assn., the nation's largest teachers union, firmly opposed the provision as an invitation to something larger. "It is a precedent allowing the federal government to subsidize, at least indirectly, private or religious schools and fees," NEA lobbyist Joel Packer said.

Oddly enough, the second concession is backed by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. George Miller of Martinez, the top Democrats in Congress on education issues. Both are prominent voucher critics. Included in the education bill the House approved last month and in the Senate version now under debate is a significant shift on the use of federal aid for students from low-income families.

The change requires districts with persistently failing schools (a state-by-state judgment call based on test results) to use a portion of their aid to offer students extra help through tutors. The providers could be well-known tutoring companies such as the Sylvan Learning Centers or religious groups. The Democrats who agreed to the provision note that states would oversee the tutoring services and that school districts would keep control over funding. Technically, there would be no vouchers involved.

But voucher proponents were elated nonetheless. "With these significant new choices for parents, the end of the education status quo is at hand," Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Education Committee, claimed in a letter last week to Republicans.

The next front in the voucher war is in sight. Several House Republicans last month introduced a bill to allow tax credits of as much as $500 per person and $100,000 for a corporation for charitable donations to help needy students obtain privately funded tuition vouchers. Packer criticized the proposal as "a shell game" in which public money subsidizes private contributions to private groups to pay private school tuition.

But voucher proponents say their ideas will keep coming. And they know they have a public platform as long as Bush is in the White House.

"We are starting to chip away at this notion that school choice is a terrible thing that's going to ruin public schools," said Jeff Turcotte, Gregg's spokesman.

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