WASHINGTON – The Senate on Tuesday rejected a plan to allow some Washington elementary and secondary school students to attend school in suburban Maryland and Virginia at government expense.
Fifty-eight senators voted in favor of the plan, two short of the number necessary to kill a Democratic delaying tactic.
The plan, sponsored by Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., would have provided at least 2,000 low-income Washington students with up to $3,200 a year to attend any certified public or private in the metropolitan area.
In a statement shortly before the Senate vote, President Clinton denounced the voucher proposal.
“The answer is to put competition, change, excellence, accountability back into the public school system, not to take limited funds away from it,” the president said.
The money for the vouchers would have come from a fund earmarked for federal deficit reduction.
Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill., who led the opposition to the voucher plan, said the veto threat will keep the program out of the final version of the bill.
The House Appropriations Committee approved the plan Monday in its version of the annual funding bill for the District of Columbia.
Supporters of the measure said vouchers are necessary to rescue children from a decaying Washington school system.
“How many members of this Senate would send children to a school system where one-third of teachers are uncertified, unless they are forced to send them there because they didn’t have the money to get them out?” said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., one of four Democrats to support the plan.
Maryland private school principals said they would welcome the voucher program, but warned their schools could not be a cure-all for Washington’s education problems.
“I know the voucher program would pay a certain amount of money, (but) the family being assisted would still have a sizable amount of a balance,” said John Moylan, principal of DeMatha High School in Hyattsville. “We have financial aid limitations; to what degree would the schools be expected to cover the balance?”
Tuition at DeMatha is about $5,000, which is typical for an area Catholic school. Out-of-district families who want to send their children to Montgomery County Public Schools must pay about $7,000, and some of the more prestigious independent schools in Montgomery charge five figures.
The voucher program would cover only tuition and fees, not transportation or other school-related expenses.
Principals also said they wouldn’t participate in the program if the government demanded changes in admission policies or curriculum.
“If the state gets involved in the hours that we operate or whether we could teach religion or not … then I would be in objection,” said Leroy Kuhn, principal of the John Nevins Andrews School in Takoma Park.
The vouchers would go not only to the top students in the District but rather “students at diverse academic achievement levels.”
Courts are still trying to determine whether taxpayer support for elementary and secondary education violates the First Amendment’s prescript of separation of church and state. State courts in Wisconsin and Ohio blocked voucher programs in those states earlier this year on First Amendment grounds.
A spokesman for Maryland’s teachers union said his organization will fight any voucher program, even one that only affects students from out-of-state.
“We don’t think the taxpayer is ready to support two school systems,” said Roger Kuhn of the Maryland State Teachers Association.