DC Vouchers in Limbo, IRS Probes NEA

Published January 1, 2004

DC Vouchers in Limbo

As most Members of Congress headed home for Thanksgiving, President George W. Bush’s voucher plan for families in the District of Columbia remained stalled, one substantial step away from final passage.

House and Senate negotiators completed work on the plan in November and inserted it into their enormous, $300 billion omnibus spending bill. Under Congressional rules, the omnibus bill must be approved by each chamber before it is sent to the White House for the President’s signature. House leadership approved the measure during a special session on December 8.

Senate leaders returned December 9, but at press time it was unclear if the Senate would get to vote on the omnibus bill then, or if it would wait until January. Any delays could jeopardize the chances the vouchers could be used for the 2004-2005 school year.

The legislation instructs the U.S. Department of Education to select an organization to administer the voucher program. That administrator would then be responsible for selecting which schools and families may participate, in accordance with the law’s requirements.

Under the terms reached by negotiators, most of the $13 million voucher program would be converted to $7,500 scholarships that District families could use for their children to attend the private or parochial school of their choice.

New Rules for Disability Testing

In early December, the U.S. Department of Education finalized an important new rule that changes how disabled students are treated under the No Child Left Behind Act’s testing provisions.

Termed the “One Percent Rule,” the new language gives states and school districts new flexibility to address the special needs of children with severe disabilities by permitting alternate tests for up to 1 percent of their students. States and school districts will also be permitted to go above that threshold if they can demonstrate they have a larger population of severely disabled students.

The new rule comes as a response to concerns raised by parents and educators about how NCLB’s testing requirements will work for students whose disabilities are too severe to permit them to participate productively in standardized tests.

“The rule means schools around the country will not be unfairly identified by states as needing improvement when those schools make accommodations for students with the most severe disabilities, who are unable to take the same tests as their peers,” said House Education Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-Ohio).

NEA Subject of New IRS Probe

In November, the National Education Association acknowledged it was under investigation by the Internal Revenue Service. According to an NEA spokesman, the audit did not single out any particular aspect of the union’s activities. But in a separate statement, NEA President Reg Weaver asserted, “Our members are parents, taxpayers, citizens, and educators, and they have a right to be involved in politics.”

As previously reported (see, for example, “Teacher Union Accused of Tax Evasion,” School Reform News, November 2003), the Virginia-based watchdog group Landmark Legal Foundation submitted a 2001 complaint to the IRS, in which it documented significant disparities concerning the union’s political expenditures.

As a tax-exempt organization, the union is required to disclose all of its political activities on its annual Form 990 federal tax return. According to Landmark, recent tax returns indicate the NEA has reported no such political expenditures in its federal filings.

Landmark cites evidence of the NEA regularly engaging in political activities. The complaint cites millions of dollars in NEA political expenditures, including participation by both the NEA and several of its state affiliates in a “coordinated campaign with the Democratic National Committee and other political groups in order to elect targeted candidates.”

Another review of the NEA’s tax filings, conducted by the Associated Press, showed the union “had spent millions of dollars to help elect pro-education candidates, produce political training guides, and gather teachers’ voting records.”

Good Nutrition Gives “Smart Start”

Also in November, President Bush signed a six-month extension of several child nutrition programs that were set to expire. Improving those programs is a top priority for House Education Reform Subcommittee Chairman Mike Castle (R-Delaware).

The extension allows Congress to undertake a thorough review of the programs as part of its scheduled 2004 reauthorization. The National School Lunch and Breakfast Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) are among the programs up for review.

“Safe, affordable, and nutritious food is absolutely essential to ensuring a smart start in school for all our children,” said Castle. “Children who receive the nutrition they need are better able to pay attention in school and participate in classroom discussions.”

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