President George W. Bush knows his religious school voucher plan will be a hard sell in Congress.
In a Jan. 31 conversation with a group of bishops and other Roman Catholic leaders, Bush said as much. The closed-door discussion at the Old Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House was inadvertently overheard by reporters through an open microphone.
"It's a battle," Bush told the bishops. "It is a problem politically." He warned that many Republicans as well as Democrats don't agree with the concept.
According to the Cox News Service, Bush suggested to the Catholic clerics that "those of us who agree on these issues must figure out better ways to position from a PR perspective.
"Vouchers is the wrong word," the president continued. "It ought to be 'opportunity scholarships' or 'freedom initiatives' or something."
The Bush administration is trying exactly that strategy with its own school voucher plan, announced as part of the administration's education package Jan. 23. That package, dubbed "No Child Left Behind," calls for increasing the federal role in public schools, promoting reading skills and requiring frequent testing of student progress.
After three years, however, students in poorly performing schools would get vouchers estimated at $1,500 each to transfer to religious or other private schools. In keeping with the Bush public relations strategy, his education plan refers to parental "choice," but the word voucher never appears in the 28-page document.
But call it what you will, the Bush voucher proposal faces a difficult time in Congress, where members question its constitutionality and its wisdom. As Bush put it in his private meeting with the bishops, there is "serious, serious heat on Capitol Hill" against the scheme.
"It's not only from the Democrats," said Bush. "The Republicans won't yell it. But they'll whisper it. The Democrats will yell it."
And yell they did. Although Democratic leaders in Congress approved of much of Bush's plan, they bluntly opposed vouchers. "They can call them anything they want," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). "It doesn't change the fact that the majority of Americans oppose taking money from public schools and sending it to private and religious schools."
Bush allies are already looking at alternatives to the national voucher program. In his meeting with the bishops, the president said one possibility is an experimental program in the District of Columbia, a jurisdiction under the thumb of Congress.
"It may be very possible to end up with a voucher or opportunity scholarship program for the District itself," Bush said.
A second fall-back position is a tax deduction scheme in the Bush education package that would allow parents to place $5,000 in a tax-exempt savings account to pay costs at parochial and other private schools.
Religious Right organizations and the Catholic hierarchy are likely to back both approaches enthusiastically, since fundamentalist and Catholic schools will be the primary beneficiaries of any federal aid program for private education.
The Bush outreach to Catholic leaders has been strong on both his voucher plan and his campaign to give federal funding to "faith-based" social services. Right-wing Catholic activist Deal Hudson, who attended the Bush-bishops conclave, says the relationship is a natural response to the election, where Catholic voters gave Bush more votes than they did Bob Dole in 1996.
"I think you are seeing a historic and ground-breaking moment in the participation of Catholics in public life," Hudson told National Catholic Register. "Everyone who was at that meeting had the sense that they were witnessing something unprecedented."
Meanwhile, church-state separationists are gearing up for battle against vouchers.
Said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, "If President Bush really wants to unite Americans, he'll stop kowtowing to the Religious Right and sectarian special interests and move on to real education reforms that the people support."