Voucher Bill Passes House but Unlikely to Become Law

Congress’ approval of a long-sought school voucher plan for the District of Columbia drew a mixed response from the Jewish community.

The House of Representatives on Thursday voted 214-206 in favor of the measure, which passed the Senate last year.

The legislation stands little chance of becoming law, however, because President Clinton has promised to veto it and congressional leaders say they lack the two-thirds majority necessary to override his veto.

Still, voucher proponents in the Jewish community hailed the bill’s passage – - the first time both houses of Congress have approved taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers for students to use at private or parochial schools.

Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, said the move “shows that the momentum is with those who are committed to reforming our educational system and to providing parents with greater power and greater resources in guiding their children’s education.”

Jewish voucher opponents criticized the congressional action, calling it a bad development for public education and religious liberty.

“It’s an unhappy day” when Congress allows itself to be diverted from “what has to be done to provide proper educational opportunities for children in the inner city in order to enact what amounts to a nostrum that is not going to work,” said Richard Foltin, legislative director and counsel for the American Jewish Committee.

His group organized a letter, signed by 25 faith-based organization and sent to members of Congress this week, to emphasize that a large part of the religious community opposes voucher proposals.

Vouchers “represent the wrong remedy for the serious ills of America’s public schools,” the letter states. “We believe vouchers will harm American public education to grave disadvantage of the most disadvantaged Americans and undermine the constitutional separation between church and state.”

The so-called District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Act would give $3,200 to about 2,000 children from low-income families for use at any private, parochial or public school in the Washington area. The bill authorizes $45 million to be spent over five years.

A similar plan was dropped last year because of White House opposition and another initiative failed in the previous Congress in 1996.

Advocates of the legislation see the D.C. voucher plan as a test run for vouchers on the national level. Indeed, voucher proponents have turned their attention to the District of Columbia’s failing schools in recent years in part because congressional support is lacking for a broad voucher program. A proposal to enact a voucher plan to benefit students across the country died in Congress last year.

Voucher opponents object to the idea of using Washington, D.C. as a trial balloon.

“The congressional leadership has acted on their belief that D.C. is their own private testing ground, forgetting that what’s not good for the country is also not good for D.C,” said David Harris, director of the American Jewish Congress’ Washington office.

Diament offered another view.

“Perhaps Washington, D.C., is the place to do it because things can’t get worse,” he said. If the plan is signed into law, “five years from now things are either going to be the same for D.C.’s children or better and we’ll know whether vouchers work,” Diament said.

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