- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2001

A bipartisan school savings plan that would give parents more choice over their children's education without resorting to school vouchers will be introduced in the Senate today.

"It is an alternative to the voucher fight," said Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, New Jersey Democrat, who is introducing the plan with Sen. Tim Hutchinson, Arkansas Republican, to allow $2,000 yearly contributions from birth to a child's tax-free education savings account.

"Senator Hutchinson and the president would want vouchers as well," Mr. Torricelli said. However, the Arkansas Republican expressed doubt a voucher plan could surmount considerable opposition in Congress.

"There is disagreement among Republicans on vouchers," Mr. Hutchinson said in a joint press briefing yesterday in Mr. Torricelli's office. "It will be difficult to overcome."

President Bush's education reform plan, yet to be submitted to Congress in legislative form, also would broaden an existing program for education savings accounts, limited to $500 yearly contributions for college expenses.

Mr. Bush would increase allowable yearly contributions to $5,000 and also let the funds be used for education-related expenses from kindergarten to 12th grade.

The Torricelli-Hutchinson plan would limit the contributions to $2,000, they said, because that plan passed the Senate by a 61-37 vote last year. President Clinton twice vetoed tax bills containing the measure.

"It failed for want of a presidential signature," Mr. Torricelli said. "We feel that might not be a problem."

The senators said they hope to make the proposal part of a tax package that is a top administration and congressional priority.

Mr. Torricelli said he does not oppose the $5,000 limit in Mr. Bush's proposal but believes the lower $2,000 limit would retain support from the Senate and House coalitions that have previously passed it.

The previous Republican co-sponsor was Sen. Paul Coverdell of Georgia, who died last year, and the accounts would be called Coverdell Education Savings Accounts in his honor.

The legislation would not limit the sources of contributions to a child's parents. Extended family, as well as third parties such as parents' employers, churches or businesses, could put money into the accounts.

The fund could be used by families with children in public schools for additional school expenses, such as tutoring, after-school programs and home computers or to enable parents to opt out of public schools and pay tuition at private and parochial schools, the lawmakers said.

The senators said parochial school tuition in their states averaged $1,800 to $2,000 a year.

"This is affordable for people of modest means," Mr. Torricelli said. "In Newark and Camden, 70 percent of children in parochial schools are minority, and they are not Catholic."

"It's going to provide means by which low-income parents, if they start early, can send their children to private school," Mr. Hutchinson said. "Or in rural areas, where there are no private schools, they could use the money for tutoring."

Critics of vouchers oppose government funds going to private and parochial schools. The senators said their plan responds to that concern because the money in education savings accounts is not government money it belongs to families yet every dollar from the accounts is additional money for education.

Also, money from the accounts used for tutoring would supplement incomes of public- and private-school teachers, they said.

Tax-free savings accounts for college expenses were first approved by Congress as part of the Taxpayers' Relief Act of 1997.

In June 1998, the House voted 225-197 and the Senate voted 59-36 to increase yearly allowable contributions from $500 to $2,000 and broaden use of the accounts for elementary and secondary schools as well, but Mr. Clinton vetoed the bill.

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