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Schools Chief Riley Calls Voucher Programs a 'Fad'

Education: Cabinet official's statements signal administration's intent to fight stream of related bills from conservative Republicans.


WASHINGTON — Education Secretary Richard W. Riley on Tuesday launched the Clinton administration's counterattack on GOP lawmakers' education proposals, calling taxpayer-funded "vouchers" for private education a "fad" that would benefit a few and leave most students behind.

Confronting a spate of education-related legislation from conservative Republicans, Riley renewed the administration's call for standard national tests in reading and math and called for a new federal commitment to help local school districts address overcrowding.

And Riley warned that he will urge vetoes for a pair of legislative initiatives: one that would use federally funded vouchers to send 2,000 low-income schoolchildren in the District of Columbia to private schools and another that would establish tax-protected savings accounts for parents who send their children to such schools.

Clinton already has vowed that he would try to block two other measures moving through Congress: a bid to block national standards testing and a measure that would send all funds now disbursed by the federal Education Department directly to local school districts.

Riley's latest challenges underscore the administration's determination to put its imprint on the education issue in Clinton's second term. But with Republican leaders equally bent on recasting education policy differently, the issue has become a political battleground.

Although President Clinton can claim solid public support for his national testing proposal, the administration knows that Americans now lean toward Republicans when it comes to vouchers. In a recent national poll of parents with children in public schools, the Gallup Organization found that 55% believe the government should help pay the tuition of children in private and parochial schools. The poll was conducted for Phi Delta Kappa, a professional society for educators.

The use of taxpayer-funded vouchers to help parents pay for their children's private education has sparked long-running debates and a number of legal battles. Across the country, many local districts are experimenting with such schemes. Several, however, have been blocked by court rulings that the use of public funds to pay the tuition of parochial-school students violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

On Tuesday, Riley called Republican initiatives like vouchers "divisive" and warned that they would draw much-needed funds from public-school coffers while leaving the bulk of students in those schools.

"It could cost roughly $15 billion just to pay the tuition of the 5 million children already enrolled in private schools in this nation," said Riley. "The last thing we should be doing at a time when so many of our schools are bursting at their seams is to be draining public tax dollars from public education to subsidize private education."

In a "white paper" released at the time of Riley's speech, Education Department experts cautioned that even if private schools were readily accessible to all students, the limited capacity of existing private and parochial schools means that only a small percentage of the nation's 46.5 million public-school pupils would be able to use vouchers. Given the competition for such slots, the experts warned that public schools likely would lose their best students and most active parents.

In the aftermath, the paper concluded, the most disadvantaged students would be left in schools drained of public funds, motivated parents and students who are high achievers.

"Instead of giving a few students a way out, we need to give all students a way up by improving the quality of all schools," Riley's white paper said.

But in throwing down the gauntlet over vouchers, the administration has taken on some of Capitol Hill's most powerful lawmakers. Last week, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) pledged their support for the proposal to provide federally funded vouchers to send 2,000 low-income students in the nation's capital to private or parochial schools.

Flanked on the capitol steps by 150 African-American school children from local private and parochial schools, Gingrich asked: "Why don't the children of Washington have the same right to go to the best schools, the same as the children of rich folks?"

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