- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 29, 2005

Rep. John A. Boehner, circumventing his own committee, is pushing ahead with a proposal to reimburse public and private schools that took in students displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The panel defeated the proposal Thursday.

“It is an outrage that House Democrats and the education establishment would stand in the way of meaningful relief for the victims of hurricanes,” said the Ohio Republican, chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee. The panel defeated his proposal 26-21 after Democrats complained it was a thinly veiled attempt to create a voucher system for religious schools.

Mr. Boehner — who said the measure is the fastest way to cut through red tape and get relief to the schools that need it — is asking the House Budget Committee to include the proposal in a broad budget package expected for a House vote in coming weeks.

His school-reimbursement proposal would assign account numbers to displaced parents, and they could pass them along to any school they choose for their children, including private religious schools. The school then would apply directly to the government for reimbursement of up to $6,700 per student for the 2005-06 school year.

“Is providing these funds through the layers upon layers of education bureaucracy the best way to achieve this goal? Of course not,” Mr. Boehner said.

Four Republicans voted against the proposal, including Rep. Judy Biggert of Illinois, who said her biggest concern was that it creates “direct payment to private schools” and sets a “bad precedent.”

“That’s taxpayer money,” she said.

Mrs. Biggert and some Democrats favor allowing public schools to provide needy private religious schools with resources such as desks and other nonreligious supplies.

The Katrina school-reimbursement bill was one of the first major attempts to craft a bold, Republican solution to a Katrina-related problem, so its defeat does not bode well for similar proposals in the future. Mrs. Biggert said Republicans have many good ideas responding to the storm, but school choice simply remains a controversial issue “that not all Republicans agree with.”

The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. George Miller of California, angrily denounced Mr. Boehner’s move to advance his “voucher program.”

“It is wrong for Republican leaders to ignore the will of the majority of members of the committee so that they can achieve an ill-conceived, and long-held, ideological goal,” Mr. Miller said. “Apparently, Republican leaders prefer advancing their own ideological agenda over helping schools and schoolchildren in the Gulf Coast, and that’s why they acted in such an undemocratic fashion today.”

The Senate version of the education bill, a compromise with key Senate Democrats, would funnel money through the public school districts and require eligible private schools to meet several requirements.

Mike Franc, vice president of government relations for the Heritage Foundation, said Mr. Boehner’s proposal is still alive and is “probably the most ambitious school-choice proposal ever introduced in Congress,” because it places control in the parents’ hands.

He said Republicans should expect to feel some “natural turbulence” as they advance bold ideas after Hurricane Katrina, and he urged President Bush to “feel a little ownership” over the school proposal and “make a few phone calls” to build its support on Capitol Hill, just as he did when he pushed the Medicare prescription-drug program through Congress.

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