President’s Veto Threats Aim to Thwart Educational Choice

Published November 1, 1997

President Bill Clinton has issued four veto threats since July 29 to thwart legislation promoting choice in education. The President’s first veto threat came at the end of August, when he threatened to veto the entire bipartisan budget agreement if it contained an amendment by Senator Paul Coverdell (R-Georgia). Coverdell’s amendment, which was removed, encouraged parents to establish education savings accounts to cover tuition and other expenses for K-12 education in public, private, religious, and home schools.

“I would veto any tax package that would undermine public education by providing tax benefits for private and parochial school expenses,” said the President. The Georgia Senator dismissed Clinton’s arguments as “demagoguery.”

In September, on a 51-49 vote, the U.S. Senate approved Senator Slade Gorton’s (R-Washington) proposal to convert most federal elementary and secondary education programs, including Goals 2000 and bilingual programs, to block grants that would send $13.5 billion directly to local school districts to spend as they “deem appropriate.” The amendment is now in the joint conference committee.

Gorton’s amendment increases the decision-making authority of local school officials, at the expense of state and federal officials. Education Secretary Richard W. Riley called the amendment “unacceptable,” and President Clinton threatened to veto the entire education spending bill if it contained the block grant language.

Clinton’s third veto threat came after a September 16 House vote to bar the Education Department from spending any of its funding on the President’s plan for national testing. Amendment author Representative William Goodling (R-Pennsylvania) called the President’s plan “a waste of taxpayers’ money” that will “increase federal involvement in our schools.”

The President has made national standards the centerpiece of his education policy and insists that those standards should be applied to every school and every student. He has also said that the standards and related tests are voluntary.

But a “voluntary” test is a lose/lose situation for the states, says Rebecca Kopriva of the Delaware Department of Education. If states fail to use the tests, they will be denied federal education funds. If states do use the tests and their children score poorly, they will be required to change their curricula to fit the test.

“This is going to drive a lot of what we are doing,” she said. “And it won’t only drive it in grades four and eight. It’s going to drive it throughout the years because they are going to gear to grades four and eight.”

In his most recent attack on school choice, the President threatened to veto legislation that would give nearly 2,000 students in Washington, DC the same educational opportunity he gave to his daughter Chelsea: escape from the District of Columbia public schools. (See “Tuition Scholarship Plan Proposed for Wash., DC,” School Reform News, September 1997.) The GOP plan would provide vouchers of up to $3,200 to pay tuition at public, private, or religious schools.

The House and Senate were expected to vote on the bill in early October. Unexpected support for the measure came from the Washington Post in a September 30 editorial, which concluded that the program “will not do harm to the system” nor brand it as “a permanent loser.”

“A modest voucher experiment might help energize the public schools,” the newspaper’s editors concluded. “It won’t replace them.”

The President’s veto threat came despite support for the voucher proposal from thousands of District residents and more than one hundred District ministers.

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