House Passes Education Bill, but Leaves out the Vouchers

With the Bush White House frequently touting education as its top priority, what the U.S. House of Representatives left out of the education bill it recently passed was significant and duly noted by Jewish groups.

After spirited debate, the House voted not to include vouchers in its federal funding bill for elementary and secondary schools. Two amendments to the education bill, which passed the House on Wednesday night, ultimately failed by wide margins.

Most Jewish groups oppose vouchers, arguing that they divert money from the public school system and that federal funding should not go to private and religious schools.

The Orthodox Union, however, supports vouchers and said it was disappointed that an amendment that would have authorized $50 million for 5 pilot projects, and would have used new resources, was voted down.

“The demonstration proposals answer all the critics’ concerns they use new money to fund the program and they are only used by localities whose elected leaders wish to create such a program,” said Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs.

Orthodox Jews, who typically send their children to Jewish day schools, long have supported publicly financed tuition vouchers. Opposition to such programs traditionally has been strong among Conservative and Reform Jews, historic opponents of state aid to parochial schools.

Early opposition to vouchers — from both sides of the Congressional aisle — led the Bush administration to abandon initiatives that would have provided funding toward private school tuition for students in failing public schools.

Conservatives rallied around the voucher cause and tried to put the programs back into the bill, but they were unable to push through the initiatives.

A voucher amendment that would have provided $1,500 toward private school tuition for students who have attended unsafe or low-performing schools for three years was defeated by a vote of 273-155.

The voucher issue has a lot of energy but the proposals are very hard to enact, said Richard Foltin, legislative director for the American Jewish Committee.

“There are a lot of strong advocates but the political support for vouchers is overestimated,” he said.

Vouchers were one focus of the Bush presidential campaign. When he realized the issue did not have enough support, however, he dropped it to promote the rest of his education plan, which includes annual mandatory testing in reading and math for grades 3-8 and more flexibility for state and local school districts.

The voucher debates pitted Democrats defending the public school system against Republicans who insist that parents should have the option of removing children from failing schools.

The Senate will debate its own voucher proposals, but its debate is expected to be much less heated and is likely to result in further defeat for vouchers.

The House education bill did include an amendment denying federal funds to schools or districts that discriminate in some way against the Boy Scouts of America. Some schools have tried to block Boy Scout meetings because of the organization’s policy of discrimination against homosexuals, but by law the Boy Scouts have the same right to meet in public schools as all other organizations.

The Anti-Defamation League says the House amendment is unnecessary because schools cannot actually bar the scouts from facilities that are open to outside groups.

“Local control of public schools and school funding decisions should not be put at risk by this proposed amendment, which represents an extreme solution to a non-existent problem,” the ADL said in a letter to senators, who will soon consider a similar amendment.

The ADL also noted that all references to anti-bias education programs were removed in the House bill, but are still in the Senate bill. The issue will have to be resolved when the chambers meet to work on a compromise bill.

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