10/1997 Parents’ Choice: Information for advocates of educational freedom

Published October 1, 1997

Clinton Kills K-12 Education IRA

In a surprising last-minute move, President Bill Clinton, who campaigned last year as the “education president,” killed an amendment to Congress’ bipartisan budget agreement that would have allowed parents to save up to $2,500 a year for each of their children.

The amendment, authored by Senator Paul Coverdell (R-Georgia), chairman of the Senate Republican Task Force on Education, would have extended the budget agreement’s college Education Savings Accounts, allowing ESAs to cover tuition and other expenses for K-12 education in public, private, religious, and home schools. All parents could contribute $2,000 a year in after-tax income to the accounts, while middle-income parents also could contribute the $500 per child tax credit included in the budget bill.

Despite strong opposition from the National Education Association and 15 other groups who branded the measure “a sibling voucher scheme,” the amendment easily passed in the Senate on a 58-42 vote. The amendment was included in the final budget accord hammered out between Congress and the White House and heralded by the press. But within hours, President Clinton sought to revise the accord.

“I feel particularly good about the strong education package that is included in the tax bill,” the President wrote to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia), thanking the Republican leader for his “productive, bipartisan manner” in working to develop “this bipartisan budget agreement.” But then Clinton dropped his bombshell by reneging on support for the final agreement.

“As you know, in working out the final agreement, I strongly opposed the Coverdell amendment,” wrote the President, and added, “I would veto any tax package that would undermine public education by providing tax benefits for private and parochial school expenses.” The Coverdell amendment was immediately pulled from the package.

Republican resolve on the school choice issue was fortified by President Clinton’s veto threat, which forced removal of K-12 Education Savings Accounts from the recent bipartisan budget agreement. Republicans seized on the veto to highlight the clear differences between themselves and Democrats on education policy.

“What the Clinton administration and its allies are really saying is that they are willing to protect even a bad public school from change, no matter what the cost to the children,” charged a disappointed Senator Paul Coverdell (R-Georgia), author of the contentious K-12 ESA amendment in the budget agreement. “I don’t think many Americans agree with them on that.”

Coverdell Introduces Stand-Alone Bill

With the help of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia) and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Mississippi), a determined Coverdell quickly drafted a standalone bill that would allow parents and others to contribute up to $2,000 of after-tax income per year per child to K-12 ESAs. Introduced in the Senate just two days after the President’s veto threat, the “PASS-A+ Act” (Parent and Student Savings Account Plus Act, S-1133), rapidly garnered 33 co-sponsors. The equivalent House bill gained 60 co-sponsors within a few hours of introduction the following day.

“Our approach focuses on parental power and choice,” said Coverdell. “That is why we chose a savings-account vehicle in which all the key decisions would be made by the taxpaying parents themselves.”

Supporters of the PASS-A+ bill expressed outrage over the President’s willingness to sabotage the entire tax relief package, simply to prevent parents from saving their own money and making the same choice the Clintons made in sending their daughter Chelsea to a private school.

“We want every child in America to have the same choice as Chelsea Clinton,” said Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson, picking up on the issue in an August GOP radio address. “What are Democrats so afraid of when it comes to choice, competition, and accountability in our schools?” he asked.

“Whether public, private or parochial, every family in America should have the right to send their children to the school that best serves their child’s needs,” Carlson added.

Many in Congress Reject Public Schools

A new survey shows that half of U.S. Senators with school-age or older children send their children to private rather than public schools, almost four times more than would be expected from the 14 percent of school-age children nationwide that attend private schools. While only 8 percent of all black and Hispanic children attend private schools, 32 percent of the Congressional Black Caucus and 44 percent of the Hispanic Caucus choose private schools for their children.

The study, conducted this summer by Heritage Foundation education analyst Nina Shokraii, also shows 34.4 percent of House Members and nearly 40 percent of House Education Committee Members send their children to private schools. A September 8 editorial in The Wall Street Journal pointed out that both President Bill Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore had chosen private schools for their children, indicating a 100 percent rejection of public schools in the Executive Branch.

“Despite this personal experience,” opine Journaleditors, “both men oppose giving the same kind of choice to kids who must walk through metal detectors within miles of the White House.”