- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 11, 2001

Education Secretary-nominee Rod Paige told senators yesterday that he will not make school vouchers a "priority," partially retreating from one element of President-elect George W. Bush's campaign rhetoric.

"I am a passionate promoter of public education," Mr. Paige, the superintendent of schools in Houston, said at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

"The term voucher has acquired such a negative tone that I've never used it," he said.

Mr. Bush, who made education a major theme of his campaign, also did not use the word "voucher," but he promised repeatedly to take funding away from persistently underperforming schools and give it directly to parents, who could apply the money to tutoring programs or even private-school tuition.

"We will give parents with children in failing schools … the resources to seek more hopeful options," he said in one of his early campaign addresses on education. "This will amount to a scholarship of about $1,500 a year."

Under Mr. Bush's plan, detailed in several campaign documents, failing schools would be given a three-year period to improve test scores. For students in schools that fail after that point, Mr. Bush proposes giving parents a share of federal aid money known as Title I funds designated to help poor and academically disadvantaged students.

But education groups and teachers unions, major backers of the Democrats, object vigorously. They say such an idea will lead to a mass exodus of students from public schools and cut into the already inadequate funding for poor schools.

"It seems to me the tax dollars would be better spent improving schools rather than giving up on them," said committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat.

Although Mr. Paige appeared to back off formal voucher programs, he insisted that he and Mr. Bush would stick to the campaign's promise to offer parents options to get children out of failing or dangerous schools.

"I do believe in parental choice," Mr. Paige said. "I think parental choice is a necessary condition to effective public education, but parental choice comes in many forms."

Houston has experimented with several parental choice plans that fall short of giving parents outright cash grants, or vouchers.

One plan establishes charter schools, which are run by private groups but supervised by public officials. Another creates magnet schools, where specialized academic or artistic programs are centralized at one school and students districtwide apply to attend.

The district also has experimented with contracts with private schools to take in students from the most troubled schools, a possible way to achieve the same results as a voucher program without diverting money directly from failing schools.

"I think there is room for us to talk about this," Mr. Paige said.

Democrats, however, warned Mr. Paige that Mr. Bush would be unlikely to get any kind of voucher plan through the Senate, which is split evenly between the parties. After Jan. 20, Republicans will have control of the chamber only because Richard B. Cheney, as vice president, will be able to break tie votes in their favor.

Even after Mr. Cheney takes office, Republicans will be 10 votes short of the 60 votes needed to break the complicated parliamentary roadblocks Democrats could throw up under Senate rules. They also face defections on the issue: Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican and a member of the committee, has said she opposes voucher programs.

Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, said there appears to be many areas where Democrats and Republicans can agree, including boosting funding for teacher training and improving accountability standards for schools.

But, he said, "I hope we don't squander this by launching off into more ideological rather than pragmatic efforts to reform education," a reference to voucher programs.

Mr. Paige appears to face little difficulty with committee approval and quick confirmation by the full Senate. He is known nationally for successes in improving test scores and reducing violence in troubled inner-city Houston schools.

Democrats made clear yesterday that they would support Mr. Paige.

One of Mr. Bush's Cabinet nominees, Labor Secretary-nominee Linda Chavez, withdrew her name Tuesday after reports surfaced that she may have hired an illegal immigrant as a housekeeper. She insisted that the woman was merely a guest, but backed out after enduring three days of steady criticism.

Only two other nominees, Attorney General-nominee John Ashcroft and Interior Secretary-nominee Gale A. Norton, face significant opposition. Liberal and environmental groups claim the two are too conservative and are trying to derail their nominations, although they appear to be having little success.

Other Bush nominees appear to be sailing to easy confirmation by the Senate. Most will have confirmation hearings next week in advance of the Jan. 20 inaugural.

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