'Academic Emergency'

School Voucher Issue Erupts In Congress

Capitol Hill press conferences are usually not notable for their décor. But House Majority Leader Dick Armey's event on Oct. 20 to announce his latest school voucher plan was not only a little different, it bordered on surreal.

The press conference was held in a room at the Capitol that Armey's staff had designed to be identical to an elementary school classroom, replete with a colorful alphabet on the wall and a teacher's desk at the front of the room, adorned with a real apple. Journalists in attendance were asked to sit in schoolhouse style desks with history textbooks under their chairs. There was even a blackboard at the front of the room, with the words "Freedom + Accountability = Results" written in chalk.

"I hope you are enjoying this room and enjoying the desks," Armey told the audience. "Probably brings back fond memories for many of you."

But while voucher opponents could approve of Armey's decorating skills, the same could not be said of the legislation he was there to promote.

Armey announced his "Safe and Sound Schools" measure, a proposal that would create a national voucher program costing $500 million over five years. The majority leader compared public schools in trouble with areas struck by natural disasters.

"When a tornado, earthquake, hurricane, flood or other natural disaster strikes a community, state governors can declare the affected areas as 'disaster areas,' thereby making area residents eligible for a number of federal disaster relief programs," Armey said. "But, when school children are the victims of academic disasters, the response of the federal government is to put more money into failed programs without enforcing significant changes to the existing system."

To "save" these students, Armey would create a federal program that allows governors to declare "academic emergencies" at poorly performing public elementary schools, modeled after a governor's authority to declare a state of emergency in an area damaged by a natural disaster. Once a school is labeled as "failing," students would be eligible to receive a voucher of up to $3,500 for tuition at any school, including religious and other private schools. (Also eligible would be students in schools that receive Title I aid who are the victims of violence at school.)

Governors would have wide discretion as to what would constitute an "emergency" school; Armey said the criteria would be entirely up to each state's officials.

Armey attempted to offer his voucher proposal as an amendment to the "Dollars to the Classroom Act" (H.R. 2), which will renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the major federal aid-to-education program. Since 1965, ESEA funds (Title I) have provided services such as remedial education for disadvantaged students.

However, despite support from Armey and other Republican House leaders, the amendment was soundly rejected. On a Sept. 21 floor vote, the House voted 257-166 against Armey's amendment. Fifty-two Republicans joined 204 Democrats and one independent in rejecting the proposal.

Voucher opponents celebrated the House vote.

"Vouchers are not the solution for any of America's educational problems, and more and more members of Congress are realizing that," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. AI applaud the House for decisively defeating Rep. Armey's disastrous proposal."

The battle, however, isn't over. Armey's "Safe and Sound Schools" plan is just the tip of the voucher iceberg. While both the House and Senate have been conspicuously quiet on vouchers for the better part of 1999, this fall some members of Congress are making up for lost time.

This newfound interest was highlighted when the House Budget Committee hosted a Sept. 23 hearing on the matter. The featured speaker was Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), who received a hero's welcome from voucher boosters because of his success in pushing through the first-ever statewide voucher program. The committee also heard from Wal-Mart heir John Walton, an avid voucher supporter and co-chairman of the Children's Scholarship Fund, and Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), who helped enact Cleveland's voucher program when he was governor of Ohio.

Furthermore, the same day Armey tried to attach his scheme to the "Dollars to the Classroom Act," Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) offered an amendment that would allow students to use Title I funds for tuition at religious and other private schools.  Petri's effort met a similar fate to Armey's. After a floor debate, the measure was defeated, 271-155.

Petri's amendment appears to have been influenced, at least in part, by presidential politics. Shortly before Petri announced his support for allowing Title I funds to be used at private schools, Gov. George W. Bush (R-Tex), the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, set forth his education agenda, and this proposal was near the top of his list.

In a Sept. 2 campaign speech, Bush promised tuition vouchers for students in Title I schools that fail to improve after a three-year period. "In my administration, money will not follow failure," Bush said.

Presidential politics and the voucher issue have also been tied together in other campaigns.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has not only endorsed the voucher concept, but has also introduced a bill in the Senate that is one of the most ambitious and expensive voucher proposals in recent memory. McCain's program would allocate $5.4 billion in federal funds for a three-year voucher "experiment."

"One way to provide parents a real choice in their children's educational opportunities is to find out whether school vouchers will help them learn," McCain said in a USA Today editorial. AI propose a three-year nationwide test to provide vouchers for low-income children in the worst schools in each state."

Under his plan, McCain would give states federal grants to be turned into $2,000 vouchers for private school tuition. With strict budget constraints in place, McCain proposes paying for his program by cutting subsidies for the oil, gas, sugar and ethanol industries.

McCain's first attempt to advance his plan was an unqualified failure. During the Senate debate over Congress' tax cut package, the Senator introduced the measure as an amendment. It was soundly defeated, 86-14. Undeterred, McCain has also introduced his voucher plan as a free-standing bill, S.667.

Some speculate that McCain may see the voucher issue as a means to reach out to religious conservatives who have been cool to his campaign thus far. While McCain is not known for taking a leadership role on the vouchers, he has been making the issue a more visible part of his campaign in recent weeks.

Regardless of the motivation, the flurry of voucher action on Capitol Hill and elsewhere has church-state separationists concerned.

"Diverting tax dollars to religious schools violates the Constitution and undercuts the efforts to improve our public schools," said AU's Lynn. "We need to get that message to our nation's leaders."