President Attacks School Choice

Published November 1, 1997

Striking back at supporters of educational choice who had cheered Congress’ passage of two choice-friendly amendments to the education spending bill, President Clinton threatened to veto the entire package if either provision were included in the final joint conference bill. Then, after Education Secretary Richard E. Riley issued his strongest attack yet on vouchers and school choice, Clinton further threatened to veto the pilot voucher program proposed for students in the District of Columbia.

The Senate-approved amendment to the education spending bill, introduced by Senator Slade Gorton (R-Washington), would convert most federal education spending to block grants. The House amendment, from Representative William Goodling (R-Pennsylvania), would deny funds to carry out the President’s voluntary national tests. The President had failed to obtain Congressional approval for his plan before ordering the U.S. Department of Education to develop the fourth- and eighth-grade reading and mathematics tests.

“Those in Washington, DC guard their power jealously and they won’t give it up easily,” said Gorton in a GOP radio address. “I believe the President is taking the wrong position.” Gorton said the President’s veto tells parents and teachers that he doesn’t trust them to make sure that American children are learning.

“I am very surprised that the President would suggest a veto that could force a government shutdown,” commented Goodling, who is chairman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, “all so that he can pursue an ideological agenda.”

Riley’s latest attack on vouchers and school choice, backed up by a Department of Education white paper, came in a September 23 speech to the National Press Club, where he reiterated the President’s position that vouchers undermine public education. They do this, according to the white paper, by diverting attention from the need to improve public schools, adding to the public cost of education, reducing accountability, changing the mission of private schools, and possibly violating state and U.S. constitutions.

Charging that voucher advocates have become “almost myopic,” with “a very simplistic world view,” Riley also attacked school choice by characterizing Senator Paul Coverdell’s proposal for Education Savings Accounts as “a voucher by another name.” Unlike vouchers, however, the Georgia Senator’s proposal would simply permit parents to invest their own money, after taxes, in a savings account for the K-12 education of their own children. Parents are free to do this now, but Coverdell’s legislation, in the smallest step possible towards school choice, would allow interest to accumulate tax-free.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].