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Bush Muddies the Waters in Spelling Out States' Role in His Voucher Plan

George W. Bush's plan explicitly mandates that states, whether they want to or not, help fund the kind of voucher program that is now the top priority of voucher advocates: one aimed at students from low-income families in poorly performing public schools.

October 02, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

Is George W. Bush losing faith in the political viability of school vouchers? His comments in recent days suggest he may be. In the most charitable interpretation, Bush's remarks obscure the implications of a voucher plan central to an education reform agenda; in the least charitable interpretation, he's been flat-out misrepresenting his own proposal.

Before the details, some background. Vouchers--public subsidies for parents sending their children to private schools--remain an enormously controversial idea. Among supporters, primarily conservatives, it's an article of faith that helping more parents shift to private schools will generate competitive pressure that forces public schools to improve. But critics fear that vouchers will simply drain money from the public school system.

At the ballot box, the critics' arguments (amplified in heavy advertising campaigns funded by teachers' unions) have proved decisive: No state referendum to create a voucher system has ever passed, notes Chester E. Finn, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute. This year, voucher initiatives face likely defeat in California and an uncertain fate in Michigan (where polls show the idea leading but running well below the crucial 50% level).

In their campaign appearances, both Bush and running mate Dick Cheney have faced skeptical questions from voters (or, in some cases, students) worried that vouchers will hurt the public schools. In response, first Cheney and then Bush have insisted that the Texas governor's education reform agenda would not require states to provide vouchers.

"If the state of California wants to do that, it's up to the state of California," Bush said in Redwood City last week. "I believe in local control of schools."

On CNN's "Larry King Live" on Tuesday, Bush was even more emphatic: "I don't think the federal government ought to say, you will voucherize. . . . I'm not going to tell the state of Maryland or the state of Alaska, you must have a voucher program. That's up for the local people to decide."

But that's simply not right, based on his own proposal. It's true that Bush would not require states to create a universal voucher program available to all parents (as the California initiative would do).

But Bush's plan explicitly mandates that states, whether they want to or not, help fund the kind of voucher program that is now the top priority of voucher advocates: one aimed at low-income students in poorly performing public schools. That requirement is the sharp edge--the enforcement mechanism--in his accountability system for public schools.

Here's how it would work. Under the proposal he unveiled Sept. 2, 1999, in Los Angeles, Bush would require schools to annually test students receiving aid under Title I--the massive federal program that provides extra help to students from low-income families. Schools would have three years to narrow "the achievement gap" between Title I kids and the rest of their students.

If after three years the school fails to close that gap, the consequences are clear: "The state will be required to" offer parents a $1,500-per-year voucher they can use either to send their child to private school or to purchase additional help, such as tutoring or after-school enrichment, as the Bush campaign wrote in its policy paper accompanying the September 1999 speech.

Critically, under Bush's plan, the choice belongs to the parents, not the state--if parents who have children in a failing school want to use that money to transfer their child to a private school, the state can't stop them. No matter how you look at it, that's a voucher system, mandated from Washington.

Under Bush's plan, Washington would provide the first $750 of this voucher by transferring to the parents their child's annual share of the Title I money that previously went to the school. Then, according to Bush's position paper, the state is "required" to provide "an equal amount . . . from its federal or state funds."

Bush aides highlight that latter language to support his assertion that his plan would not require states to implement vouchers: They note that states could apply other federal money, not state funds, to meet their match requirement. But that's a distinction without a difference.

If states are required to divert federal money they now use for other purposes to a voucher program, they would either have to replace that money with state dollars or abandon the programs they now fund with the federal aid. Either way, Washington is compelling the state to redirect resources into vouchers.

"It's basically tying up state resources as well as federal," says Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, which represents the largest school districts. "I'm not sure that many states wouldn't see that as objectionable."

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