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Published: Sunday, 6/17/2001

Voucher defeat unfortunate

It's no surprise that the U.S. Senate defeated the school voucher amendment. The measure in President Bush's education reform legislation failed for several reasons. Among them: It raises questions about church-state separation and it makes passage of the education bill tougher.

The proposal, despite the fears of some, would not have opened doors for parents nationwide to take taxpayer money and enroll their children in private and religious schools. The bill was limited in that it would only have permitted low-income parents with children in failing public schools in just 10 cities to transfer to the private schools.

The $50 million school voucher effort was backed largely by conservative Republicans. It's laudable that they wanted to give choice to poor parents who cannot afford private school tuition. Vouchers could let them rescue their youngsters from dead-end public schools. Students in those schools are not learning, and if they are not learning they can't be expected to perform well on standardized tests.

But merely mentioning the word “voucher” evokes emotionally bitter debates about church-and-state separation. Opponents of vouchers condemn funneling federal money into religious schools. However, the defeated proposal was experimental in that parents with incomes under $32,000 could have obtained certificates worth about $1,500, not a lot of money.

Public schools are put in further peril when those tax dollars are no longer available, voucher critics also claim. However, what they don't acknowledge is that many public schools in poor areas are already doomed. What's the sense in condemning children to stay in those failing schools when they want to go where they can learn?

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said no evidence exists showing that vouchers help improve achievement. But she and her Democratic colleagues who opposed the measure - including Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who led party opposition on vouchers - ignore the fact that many poor public schools don't do anything to advance successful performance either. The Senate voted 58-41 against the proposal.

If the voucher amendment had been approved, the White House would have faced an uphill battle trying to get the education bill passed. If defeating the amendment was the Democrats' way of showing muscle to the Bush administration, they succeeded.

It's too bad, though, that the Senate is condemning poor children to failing public schools and won't support giving them a chance to learn somewhere else.

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