House Blocks Plan to Initiate School Vouchers Across Nation

The House of Representatives has dealt a setback to school-voucher proponents, voting down a plan that would have made public funding available for low-income students to use at private and parochial schools across the country.

After hours of heated debate, lawmakers voted 228-191 against an initiative that had been a key component of the Republican leadership’s education agenda.

School vouchers have long divided the Jewish community, and activists had a mixed reaction to this week’s House action.

David Harris, director of the American Jewish Congress’ Washington office, said the vote “demonstrates that the House leadership cannot convince even their own majority of the wisdom of funneling federal dollars to private and parochial schools at great cost to public education.”

Richard Foltin, legislative director and counsel for the American Jewish Committee, said the vote shows that while there is a lot of support for vouchers, “it’s certainly not the unstoppable engine that some have suggested it might be.”

Despite the vote, Jewish voucher proponents said they remain optimistic that Congress will eventually enact voucher legislation.

“The momentum” for vouchers “is clearly behind us,” said Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs. “We’re much farther down the road now than we’ve ever been.”

Matt Brooks, executive director of the Jewish Policy Center, a think tank affiliated with the pro-Republican National Jewish Coalition, called the House vote “unfortunate,” but he added that it was not “a major setback.”

About two dozen Republicans joined Democrats to defeat the measure, which would have allowed states to use some of the federal funding they currently receive as general aid for elementary and secondary schools to create scholarships for needy children who want to attend private or parochial schools.

Supporters of the measure, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), said it would have helped public schools by creating competition, while providing poor families with some of the schooling choices enjoyed by affluent families.

Opponents argued that vouchers would help only a handful of low-income students at the expense of the public school system, which educates about 90 percent of U.S. children.

Another recent House vote on vouchers had a different outcome. Last month, lawmakers backed an experimental voucher plan that would have provided tuition subsidies of up to $3,200 to 2,000 low-income students in the District of Columbia.

Some lawmakers who supported the pilot program for Washington remain opposed to introducing vouchers at the national level without a trial run, and that may have accounted for the margin of difference in the two votes, observers said.

“The farther you go away from a narrow experimental program to help the poorest of the poor, the less support there is,” said Stephen Silberfarb, deputy director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

Meanwhile, the voucher proposal for Washington was still alive in the Senate this week, despite a successful Democratic filibuster to kill the initiative. Republicans were considering adding it as an amendment to the final version of the District’s appropriations bill — a move that would likely prompt President Clinton to either veto the entire bill or use the line-item veto to ax the voucher plan.

On a related issue, the Senate this week blocked a bill that would have given parents a tax break for setting up savings accounts to be used for elementary and secondary school expenses, including private- and religious-school costs.

For a second straight week, Republicans fell short of the 60 votes needed to cut off a Democrat-led filibuster.

The O.U.’s Diament was disappointed by the Senate’s action, saying the measure “would provide critical and meaningful support to parents in their struggle to provide the best education to their children.”

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