Are vouchers stalled?

Since school choice cleared a big hurdle at the high court last year, one state has enacted a voucher plan. Now Congress may give the movement a boost.

Hoping to inject new life into the school-voucher movement, President Bush has turned to his own neighborhood in Washington as a target for educational choice.

During a visit to a charter school in the District of Columbia this month, Mr. Bush endorsed the disbursement of as much as $15 million in vouchers that would allow Washington children to attend a private school of their family's choice.

If approved by Congress, the measure would be the first time federal money flowed into a private voucher program. It's been a year since the US Supreme Court upheld the use of public money for private religious school vouchers, and supporters say the school choice movement could use another boost.

Since then, Colorado is the only additional state to have enacted a voucher plan. Opponents, meanwhile, are redirecting their legal battle to state courts, where they're challenging the notion of using public money for religious school tuition.

"Even though the Supreme Court victory was very helpful in building momentum, there are still a lot of hurdles at the state level," says Nina Rees, deputy undersecretary of education and head of the US Education Department's Office of Innovation and Improvement.

The biggest obstacle, say voucher advocates, is state budget deficits that leave little money for new education initiatives. "The budget crisis in almost every state has sucked up all the wind," says David Brennan, one of the architects of Ohio's seven-year-old voucher plan.

That was the case in Texas, where advocates couldn't get a voucher bill through the newly Republican- dominated legislature, which faces the task of plugging a multibillion-dollar budget gap. Similar measures also failed in Arizona and Louisiana.

In the three states where vouchers have already been enacted - Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio - all made modest additions to their programs.

Colorado approved a new voucher law somewhat narrower than other school-choice plans. It will provide vouchers only to low-income students with poor academic records in 15 districts.

In contrast, Wisconsin and Ohio do not limit their programs to low-performing students, while Florida bases voucher qualification mainly on a school's overall performance.

Already, a coalition of voucher opponents - including the PTA, the Colorado Education Association, and the NAACP - is challenging the new Colorado law in court.

A suit filed in a Denver state court in May charges that the law violates provisions of the state constitution, which prohibit the public funding of private religious schools.

Although the US Supreme Court ruled that such funding didn't violate the federal Constitution, many states have specific provisions that bar funding of parochial education.

With the 2004 presidential campaign gearing up, opponents say Republicans are renewing the fight as a way to woo voters. "Vouchers are not an educational-reform proposal," says Michael Pons, a policy analyst at the National Education Association, America's largest teachers union, in Washington. "It's a political strategy that helps get the support of social conservatives."

This spring, House Republicans introduced legislation to create a $75 million federally funded voucher program. The bill, expected to reach the floors of the House and Senate this week, would fund vouchers in any state that applied.

"It's the beginning of an experiment that will show whether or not private school choice makes a difference in quality education in public schools," Bush said on July 1 at the KIPP DC Key Academy, a private charter school in Washington. "I happen to believe it will."

But proposals working their way through Congress that set aside a chunk of that money for Washington have created the most attention, and are sharply dividing the capital city's Democratic leadership.

Standing beside Bush in the school cafeteria was Washington's Democratic mayor Anthony Williams, who has endorsed the voucher plan that would give up to $7,500 per student in annual tuition. "[Vouchers] will provide more opportunity for parents," Mayor Williams said.

But Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), Washington's nonvoting member of Congress, says House Republicans are using Washington children as "guinea pigs" to test vouchers. She says the city simply can't afford to siphon resources away to private schools. "If there is one thin dime extra, you certainly wouldn't take it out of the system," Representative Norton said in a phone interview last week.

If 2,000 students take advantage of the vouchers to attend private schools, as supporters suggest, voucher opponents says the city could lose $25 million in public education funding.

"We certainly recognize that there needs to be reform efforts in [D.C.], but we want it done in a way that as many children as possible are able to succeed," says Darlene Allen, president of the D.C. Congress of Parents and Teachers.

A Senate version of the proposal would provide $40 million for the D.C. voucher plan as well as new funds for the city's public schools.

Whatever the outcome, both voucher supporters and opponents acknowledge that more research needs to be done on the impact of school vouchers on the public schools that lose students.

"The important question," says Jay Greene, an education analyst at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank in New York, "is whether public schools are rising to the challenge and improving as a result of vouchers, or hindered in making progress as a result of vouchers."

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