Three days after his inauguration, President George W. Bush outlined his administration's policy on school choice.
Speaking at a Jan. 23, 2001, briefing on education, Bush told reporters, "None of us at the federal government should try to impose a school voucher plan on states and local jurisdictions. That's not the prerogative of the federal government, as far as I am concerned."
That was then. This is now.
In its proposed budget released in early February, the Bush administration earmarked $75 million dollars for voucher aid to religious and other private schools. The federal funds would be used to create "pilot" voucher programs in seven or eight cities. And administration officials indicated that they will move forward with the voucher programs regardless of what local government leaders think.
For an administration that has in recent times advocated for states' rights, the change in tone is dramatic.
Bush is currently leaning heavily on cities and states to fall in line with his plans to funnel more tax dollars to religiously run schools (as well as religiously operated social services). Those supportive of federal involvement in state issues are chagrinned, to say the least, at Bush's apparently limited conversion to federalism.
During his run for the presidency, Bush spoke fleetingly of his fondness for the idea of providing certain students with tax-supported vouchers to attend religious schools. Pundits and party loyalists theorized that Bush downplayed his support of vouchers because polls showed lukewarm support for them, courts looked unfavorably upon them and citizens all across the country had consistently turned them down in voter referenda. Additionally, Bush was seeking a national victory and in need of as many middle-of-the-road voters as possible. Vouchers have always been and remain a divisive point within the electorate.
Invariably, however, political winds shift and can provide once reproachable goals an opening. That is the situation now surrounding vouchers for religious schools. During the summer, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Ohio's voucher law did not violate the First Amendment's separation of church and state. That ruling, narrow though it was, reignited the charge for vouchers, including Bush's public support of them.
Ironically, Bush's renewed interest in vouchers comes at a time when government surpluses are a thing of the past.
Not only are numerous state governments in the red, struggling to make ends meet, the federal government has squandered surpluses of only a few years ago and is now once again facing out-of-hand deficits. The estimates of state budget deficits, according to The New York Times, forecast "the worst fiscal outlook for states since World War II." Nine states, The Times reported, have already been forced to reduce spending on elementary and secondary education.
Mounting deficits though are apparently of no great concern to the current administration. Indeed, Bush's budget included no funds to help alleviate the fiscal crises arising in the states. Instead, as noted by The Times as well as numerous other press reports, the administration's budget includes a raft of domestic program cuts.
What is also of no concern to Bush is whether cities, states and citizens support his call for funding religious school tuition.
The Department of Education website indicates that voucher funds would be made available to cities and "community-based nonprofit organizations." Therefore, if local education officials do not want to issue vouchers for religious schools, federal officials can funnel the money to local nonprofits that in turn can pay for tuition at religious and other private schools.
One of the first victims of the new Bush agenda will apparently be Washington, D.C.
About the same time White House officials sent their budget to Congress, they announced their intent to use a portion of the voucher fund to create a program in the District of Columbia. U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige met with D.C. council members and Mayor Anthony Williams Feb. 6 to discuss the proposal.
Following the meeting, Williams' spokesman Tony Bullock told The Washington Times that "you are not going to see our government participate in a government sponsored voucher program." The paper noted that District residents overwhelmingly rejected voucher-like tuition tax credits in a 1981 referendum and that a 2002 Zogby poll showed that 76 percent of residents opposed vouchers.
Nevertheless, the education department's website included strong language in support of vouchers, proclaiming that a "growing body of evidence shows that providing parents and students with expanded choice options can improve the academic performance of the students."
Dan Langan, a spokesman for the education department, told The Washington Post Feb. 7 that if the D.C. government refused the voucher grant, a "nonprofit organization in the city" would be asked to take the money and implement a voucher program.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) lambasted the administration's designs.
"The notion of skirting the public officials by finding a private entity is both insulting to public officials in the District of Columbia and treating the District in a way no other city or state is treated," Norton told The Post. "And we will not be treated unequally. We demand equal treatment when it comes to federal funds."
Also included within the Bush budget is something called the "Alternative to Failing School Tax Credit," which essentially is another voucher program. The tax credit would provide a refund of half of the first $5,000 a family spends on private school tuition. Americans United's Legislative Department estimates that the tax giveaway would cut the federal government revenue by about $3.7 billion over five years.
The Bush administration's budget would pay for the voucher programs partly by dumping other public school programs. According to a Feb. 5 report in The New York Times, the Bush budget "does away with some 45 programs worth $1.5 billion, covering rural education, dropout prevention, physical education and a number of other areas."
Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the Bush budget, if adopted by the Republican-controlled Congress, would lead to the further erosion of the First Amendment principle of church-state separation.
"The Bush voucher juggernaut is not only trampling the First Amendment but is running roughshod over public schools as well," Lynn said. "The budget forecasts for many states are dire, and the Bush administration's answer is to divert public funds to religiously run schools. The president's strident advocacy on the part of organized religion is unfortunately making for bad public policy."
Lynn is not alone in his criticism of Bush's newfound and intense push for voucher schemes.
Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, questioned the administration's budget, noting that "it eliminates vital programs, promotes a risky voucher program and ignores the dire fiscal crisis communities are facing."
The American Federal of Teachers, which represents more than 1.2 million secondary education teachers and higher education professionals, also weighed in on Bush's call for vouchers, urging members of Congress to forgo that part of the administration's budget.
"We have been and are prepared to continue working with those who no matter what their political stripe are committed to supporting public schools," said AFT President Sandra Feldman in a statement released not long after Bush's budget was sent to Congress. "But voucher programs undermine rather than strengthen our public schools and we vigorously part company with President Bush on the voucher and tax credit proposals contained in his budget."
A coalition of national and local public interest groups, which Americans United helped form and lead, has also urged Congress to stand against Bush's voucher proposals. The National Coalition for Public Education, which includes groups such as the American Jewish Congress, the ACLU, the Anti-Defamation League, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the National Alliance of Black School Educators, sent a letter to U.S. House of Representatives in early February calling on them to oppose Bush's voucher plans.
"Neither vouchers nor the proposed tax credit would expand parents' educational options, since private schools may not be required to accept all applicants," the Coalition's letter reads. "Public schools enroll 90 percent of our children. Vouchers and tuition tax credits divert resources from schools that are already severely under funded to help a select few, abandoning the majority of students left behind. Such schemes cannot improve public schools."