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In Shift, Feinstein Backs D.C. Vouchers

She breaks with most Democrats to support plan to help send kids to private schools.

July 23, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In a break with most of her Democratic colleagues, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California is promoting a controversial plan to offer parents in Washington, D.C., public funds -- known as vouchers -- to help pay for sending their children to private schools.

Feinstein wrote in Tuesday's Washington Post that she would be "inclined to support" the experimental voucher proposal as one way to try to improve the District of Columbia's struggling public school system.

Voucher advocates argue that intensified competition from private schools will spark public education improvements.

Critics reject that premise, and Feinstein, in her opinion article, noted that she had not previously supported voucher proposals. Her shift on the politically sensitive subject underscores how some Democrats are starting to rethink their deep-rooted opposition to vouchers in the aftermath of a 2002 Supreme Court ruling that found them constitutional.

Feinstein's new position drew swift criticism from the California Teachers' Assn., which has long backed her.

And it boosted the voucher plan pushed by Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams, a Democrat exasperated by low-performing local schools.

Williams wants Congress to increase funding for the capital's public schools. But he also is seeking approval of a five-year program that would offer low-income parents up to $7,500 a year for tuition, transportation and other costs if they chose to move their children to private schools.

Variations of Williams' proposal, embraced by President Bush, are advancing in the Republican-led Congress.

The House is expected to pass a spending bill by the end of this week that would allot at least $10 million for a voucher program in Washington. Similar legislation is pending in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Congress recently authorized federal funding for tutoring services that some private and religious groups offer to public school students. But the federal government has never spent money directly on private-school vouchers.

Feinstein had long stood with other congressional Democrats in blocking Republican voucher initiatives, saying that money spent on such proposals would drain scarce resources from public schools and would help private educators who were not held to public standards.

But now, from her perch on the Appropriations Committee, she may be in position to cast a key vote this year to push the idea forward.

Feinstein said her experience as San Francisco mayor and as a senator had convinced her of the need to explore new approaches to improving public education.

"For 30 years, I have advocated strongly for our public schools, because I believe that they are the cornerstone of our education system," Feinstein wrote. "In my view, we must continue to do everything we can to strengthen and improve our nation's public schools.

"But as a former mayor, I also believe that local leaders should have the opportunity to experiment with programs that they believe are right for their area."

House Republicans circulated Feinstein's article Tuesday to help build support for their voucher legislation.

"I think the most important [measure] for us right now is passing school choice to allow the citizens of D.C. ... to choose the kind of education they want to see their kids have," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) told reporters.

The president of the California Teachers Assn., Barbara E. Kerr, denounced Feinstein's willingness to back vouchers.

"She knows better," Kerr said. "Vouchers have not been proven anywhere to help kids. I have no idea why she's doing this. It's out of character and it doesn't make any sense."

Speaking by telephone from a CTA conference in Monterey, Kerr said many of the union's leaders were calling Feinstein's Washington office to register outrage. The union backed Feinstein in her reelection campaign in 2000, Kerr said, on the assumption that she would oppose vouchers.

Another influential Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Tom Harkin of Iowa, said a shift by Feinstein would probably break a deadlock on the panel and move that chamber's voucher bill to the Senate floor.

"She's a key vote," says Harkin, who opposes the legislation.

But Senate Democratic leaders still may have the votes to block the bill from passing.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) called voucher proposals "very counterproductive," and he pledged to fight them.

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