- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 13, 2001

Senate Republican leaders, unable to deliver all their own members for President Bush´s school-choice plan, lost their effort to make that proposal part of the administration´s education reform package.

Eleven Republicans joined 46 Democrats and one independent to defeat the plan to allow children of poor families to leave chronically failing public schools with their allotment of federal aid, in order to attend private schools that offer a better chance for academic achievement.

The House already had voted down the proposal.

On a 58-41 vote, the Senate rejected a sharply reduced version of Mr. Bush´s original plan. The amendment offered by Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, would have provided $50 million for a pilot private school voucher program for students of low-income parents in up to 10 cities and three states.

The president, in his "Leave No Child Behind" education reform proposal in January, asked Congress to allow any child to transport approximately $670 of per-pupil federal aid to another public or private school if the student´s own school was deemed to have failed in reading and math instruction for three years in a row.

Acknowledging that the votes were not there to pass the president´s plan, Mr. Gregg pleaded for senators to agree that children should not be "locked in" schools that fail to teach them to read and compute year after year.

"A civil right is being denied," Mr. Gregg said. "In our society, the ability to receive a quality education is tightly intertwined with the opportunity to participate in the American dream."

Mr. Gregg argued that children of parents making less than $32,000 a year were "trapped" in 9,000 chronically failing schools nationwide, because, unlike wealthy parents, they could not move to other neighborhoods with better public schools or send their children to private schools.

"This amendment is a crucial signal of how the federal government values that right. For far too long, low-income children have been locked in schools that fail to teach and that are filled with violence and drugs," he said.

He said the school choice proposal was limited to those low-income families, so no one could argue it was helping those of better means.

Successful school choice programs in Milwaukee, Charlotte, N.C., and Florida show that communities nationwide "can begin to alleviate the problem of trapping low-income students in failing schools where they continue to fall through the cracks," Mr. Gregg said.

"That´s malarkey, that´s baloney," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy responded after Mr. Gregg and three other Republicans made their case for the proposal.

The Massachusetts lawmaker led Democratic attacks on the proposal, saying school choice was "fundamentally wrong" and "an empty promise" that would "undermine" and "weaken" public schools.

Mr. Kennedy said: "Before we have crocodile tears all over the Senate floor about leaving no child behind, you´re already leaving two-thirds of the children behind" with the president´s budget, which would increase federal education spending $459 million next year, compared with a $6.4 billion increase in the Senate bill approved in committee.

Democrats argued that private schools would not be subject to the rigorous testing accountability standards of Mr. Bush´s plan, which would require students to be tested for reading and math skills every year in grades three through eight.

"I cannot support spending taxpayer dollars for schools with no public accountability," said Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat. Private schools are not required to accept students who do not speak English or who are disabled, as public schools are, or to implement the yearly testing required in federally funded public schools, she said.

"We won´t know how those students are progressing," she said. "If we send taxpayer dollars to private schools, parents won´t be able to go before public boards and demand accountability."

Eleven Republicans voted against the school choice plan — Sens. Christopher S. Bond of Missouri; Conrad Burns of Montana; Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island; Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine; Michael D. Crapo of Idaho; Craig Thomas and Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming; Chuck Hagel of Nebraska; Gordon H. Smith of Oregon; and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Only three Democrats — Sens. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, and Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut supported the school-choice proposal.

Sen. John B. Breaux initially voted for the measure, but changed his vote after extensive conversation with fellow Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, who had voted against it.

After the vote, the Senate accepted a proposal by Mr. Carper and Mr. Gregg to add $525 million to expand public charter schools through competitive grants to communities with low-performing schools, in order to give families an alternative.

The Senate also rejected 58-42 an amendment by Democratic Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut that would have required states to provide "comparable" services in rich and poor schools.

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