Congress Returns to Tackle DC Vouchers, Other Thorny Votes

Published October 1, 2003

As August recess dwindled away and Capitol Hill repopulated, Members and staff were abruptly reminded they had left town with many of the year’s thorniest education votes still before them.

No vote loomed more conspicuously than the question of President George W. Bush’s proposed school voucher plan for Washington, DC. The DC Student Opportunity Scholarship Act would offer low-income parents up to $7,500 per child to select a school of choice for their children. Mayor Anthony Williams and other District leaders who helped design the plan have maintained a strong Hill presence supporting it. On September 9, the House narrowly approved the measure with a 209-208 vote, moving the plan to the Senate, where most observers were expecting an extremely tight outcome.

While Members spent the recess traveling abroad, raising money at home, meeting with constituents, and reacquainting themselves with their families, the Capitol’s halls and telephone lines were kept buzzing by supporters and opponents of school choice weighing in on the measure. Even if approved this year, the program would be a five-year pilot requiring annual appropriations, so the debate is likely to be replayed annually.

Support for Charters Boosted

“There is no force in the universe more powerful, as far as school change is concerned, than an informed parent with options,” Secretary of Education Rod Paige commented earlier this summer. The occasion of his remarks was not the DC voucher plan he strongly supports, but the announcement of new federal grants for charter schools. The Secretary commented on the value of charters, especially where public schools have been labeled “in need of improvement” under the new terms of the No Child Left Behind Act.

“The demand for high-quality education is everywhere and charter schools can meet that demand in unprecedented ways,” said Paige.

In August, the Department of Education (DoEd) announced more than $21 million in new state charter school grants for eight states: Alaska, Arizona, Iowa, Kansas, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina.

Currently DoEd supports nearly one in three of the nation’s more than 3,000 charter schools in 39 states. That support includes not only charter school operations, but planning and setup as well.

Bush’s FY 2004 budget proposes $320 million for charter schools, including $120 million for credit enhancement. Many charter school leaders have pointed to the need for safe and functional facilities as the greatest barrier to charter school growth.

Also this summer, DoEd officials awarded a $1.8 million grant to the Milken Family Foundation to expand its Teacher Advancement Program. The program is designed to attract, retain, and motivate talented people for the teaching profession. Teachers who qualify can earn stipends and performance awards and also professional advancement, much as do professionals in other careers. They are given exposure to innovative teaching strategies while being held accountable for their performance. The federal grant will be focused on schools in Arizona, Arkansas, and South Carolina.

Senate Prepares for Special Ed Vote

In September, the Senate moved closer to a floor vote on the bipartisan special education bill passed by the Education Committee in late June. The Senate version of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) differs from the version passed by the House in a number of significant ways.

The bills share common goals, including improving education results for disabled students, reducing mislabeling of non-disabled students, reducing paperwork burdens on teachers, and improving discipline procedures widely considered problematic. But because they adopt different approaches to solving these problems, the business of resolving the two plans will fall to a conference committee, as it did with the No Child Left Behind Act. Both bodies will need to approve the final bill.

One prominent difference with regard to the misidentification of children concerns the widespread use of IQ-discrepancy models to evaluate whether children are disabled. While the House version would prohibit schools from relying on “any single measure or assessment as the sole criterion” for labeling a child, the Senate version simply would clarify that schools are not limited to the IQ-discrepancy test.

The House version also granted school districts significant flexibility to use up to 15 percent of IDEA funds for correcting reading deficiencies before children are–sometimes incorrectly–identified as disabled. The Senate version rejected that approach.

The Senate bill was endorsed by a number of high-profile groups from the education establishment–including the National Education Association, National School Boards Association, American Federation of Teachers, and Council for Exceptional Children–which opposed the House plan.

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].