Jun 13 2001
The Senate handily defeated a proposal to allow a limited experiment with private school vouchers for low-income students yesterday as it edged toward passage later this week of legislation that includes most of President Bush's other education priorities.
The action came as Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said Democrats may use their new majority power to pressure Bush to commit to increased education funding. Daschle said he may insist on such a commitment before he agrees to send the final version of the education bill to the White House for signature.
"Reform is impossible without resources," Daschle told reporters in his first overt use of his new position to challenge Bush on an issue of top-tier importance to both parties. While he has made no firm decision to hold up the education bill, Daschle said he informed Bush of his thinking last week. "We want a commitment from the administration on the availability of resources," he said.
In the vote on vouchers, the Senate rejected, 58 to 41, an amendment by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) that would have provided $ 50 million to 10 cities and three states to test Bush's proposal for vouchers to help low-income students in failing schools transfer to other facilities, private as well as public.
A similar proposal was rejected last month by the House when it approved its version of the legislation.
Although it was the Senate's first major vote since Democrats took control of the chamber last week, the margin of defeat came from Republicans. Eleven GOP senators, including some western conservatives as well as northeastern moderates, joined all but three Democrats in voting against the voucher experiment. Virginia's senators voted for the voucher program, while Maryland's senators voted against it.
After the vote, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who had sponsored an amendment to provide a four-year voucher program for poor children in the lowest-performing schools in the District of Columbia, announced he would not seek a vote on the proposal. He said he was doing so at the request of two pro-voucher groups, D.C. Parents for School Choice and Children First America, but still hoped to win passage of a voucher proposal this year.
In the debate on vouchers, Gregg said children in the 9,000 schools that have been identified nationwide as failing are denied "an opportunity to participate in the American dream" and should be allowed to transfer to better schools, even if they are private. Rather than undermining public schools, such "choice" programs strengthen public schools by forcing them to compete for students, he added.
But critics, led by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), new chairman of the committee with jurisdiction over education, argued that vouchers would divert already scarce resources from public schools, do nothing to improve them and undermine the bill's goal of increasing accountability for school performance because private schools are exempt from the requirements.
After rejecting the voucher proposal, the Senate approved by voice vote a proposal by Gregg and Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) to provide $ 125 million in grants to help implement choice programs among public schools and $ 400 million to assist in the formation of charter schools.
While omitting vouchers, the Senate bill retains such key features of Bush's education agenda as annual math and reading tests, greater flexibility for schools in use of federal funds and consequences for schools that continually fail to improve student performance. Children in those schools could receive federal funds for special services such as tutoring and transportation to other public schools.