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Vouchers Find Favor Outside GOP

The Washington mayor and a California senator support a $13-million school plan.

September 26, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans are gaining momentum in their effort to create the first federally funded school voucher program, which would help low-income District of Columbia families pay the costs of private-school tuition.

The legislation, which is backed by an unlikely alliance of Republicans, a senior California Democrat and Washington's mayor, could become law by year's end. It would be another landmark for school vouchers after the Supreme Court's 2002 ruling that upheld the constitutionality of the controversial taxpayer subsidies to cover fees at religious schools.

On Thursday, the Republican-controlled Senate began debate on a $13-million plan to offer low-income families in Washington scholarships, or vouchers, of up to $7,500 a year for children to enroll in private schools. Many of those schools are run by the Roman Catholic Church.

Leading Republicans, including President Bush, view the proposal as a chance to showcase vouchers and encourage others to try them elsewhere. But Mayor Anthony Williams, a staunch Democrat, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) insisted that they only want to give 2,000 or more disadvantaged children a shot at a better life.

"I've gotten a lot of flak because I'm supporting it," Feinstein said of the legislation, the first voucher bill she has supported in more than three decades as a public official. "But guess what? I don't care. I've spent the time. I've gone to the schools. I see what works. I see what doesn't work."

Feinstein said Williams should have the right to try something new in a 70,000-student system that perennially spends more per pupil than many others in the country, yet gets poor results. "What he has seen in the District of Columbia is too much failure," she said.

Williams made an unusual appearance on the Senate floor to remind lawmakers of his keen interest in the debate and press them, with his presence, to vote his way. The bow-tied mayor shook hands, conversed with senators and sat behind Feinstein to observe the proceedings. He said afterward it was his first time on the floor -- an appearance allowed under Senate rules. "Anything I can do to help," he told reporters. "Sitting right here gives a local face to this."

Under the bill, the government would spend $13 million on vouchers, but also give $26 million to schools in the district to be evenly divided between traditional public schools and public charter schools. The proposal is part of a $545-million bill funding the District of Columbia's government in the fiscal year that begins Wednesday.

The GOP-led House narrowly approved a similar bill this month. If the Senate approves its version and the two chambers approve a compromise, Bush is expected to sign it -- a reversal from the stance taken by his predecessor. In 1998, President Bill Clinton killed a District of Columbia voucher bill with a veto.

Democratic congressional leaders, teachers unions and many district politicians strongly oppose the House and Senate bills.

They argue that vouchers would sap money and momentum from efforts to shore up public education. Democratic opponents of the bill have held out the possibility of a filibuster to block it, though Feinstein said she doubted that would occur.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), an opponent of the bill, accused its backers of treating the district like a "political playground." He urged senators to think twice about approving a program for the capital that they would reject for their own states. Feinstein, he said, "has identified problems, but she hasn't identified the solutions -- not good solutions."

Publicly funded vouchers have been controversial across the country for decades. California voters have twice rejected school-voucher initiatives in recent years. Cleveland, Milwaukee and the state of Florida have created public voucher programs, however, and the Supreme Court ruling gave an opening for advocates to seek more by clarifying that programs in parochial schools did not represent an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.

Advocates and critics of vouchers have worked the Senate furiously this week in anticipation of the debate. A vote could occur next week.

"We want the public schools to be as good as they can be," said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who oversees about 24 Catholic schools in Washington. Many are not, he said, and children from poor families should be given the same chance as those from wealthy families to opt out of the public system.

But Democratic Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district's elected, nonvoting member of Congress, angrily dismissed such arguments and questioned the motives of voucher advocates. "These folks don't care beans about D.C.," she told reporters. "This is about whether you support public money for public schools, or not."

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