Congressional Alert

House Speaker Hastert, Religious Right Give Church School Aid High Priority In Congress

While a torrent of voucher threats are expected in the states this year, church-state separationists also expect to see a big push for religious school aid in the U.S. Congress as well.

The resignation of Speaker Newt Gingrich means the cast of characters in Washington has changed somewhat, but the script is expected to remain the same. Gingrich's replacement, newly installed House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), has pledged to make education a priority this year. Unfortunately, Hastert, a Religious Right sympathizer, has also indicated that he makes no distinction between public and private schools. Both, he asserts, deserve the support of the taxpayers.

"When we talk about education we talk about education for all children, public and private," Hastert said during a press conference in Batavia, Ill., Dec. 30. "Every kid in this country needs to have a fair shake when it comes to education."

Although Hastert pledged new ideas that would gain bipartisan support, The Washington Post reported that two of the GOP's major education planks for 1999 are a voucher plan aimed at low-income families and a plan to permit families to establish tax-deferred education savings accounts to help pay for home schooling and private school tuition. Critics say these are old, divisive ideas that the GOP has been pushing for years. House Republicans are also expected to introduce a pilot voucher program for the District of Columbia, a pet project they've promoted unsuccessfully since 1994.

The Republicans have added three new members to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce -- Reps. Tom G. Tancredo of Colorado, Ernie L. Fletcher of Kentucky and Jim DeMint of South Carolina. All three support vouchers.

Tancredo has already promised to make vouchers a top priority. The new Colorado congressman, a U.S. Department of Education staffer under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, is a Religious Right activist who spearheaded a 1992 effort that put a private school voucher referendum on the state ballot. It was crushed at the polls, 67 percent against to 33 percent for, but Tancredo is not deterred.

Vouchers, Tancredo told Education Week, are "certainly the most significant and important change we can make in education. I intend to spend my time on the committee advancing that."

A huge congressional battle is also looming over the reauthorization of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. ESEA, with 14 divisions and a $60 billion price tag, is one of the federal government's biggest education-related expenditures. The $8.3 billion Title I component deals with programs for low-income students, including those attending private schools. As such, it has become a target for congressional voucher advocates.

According to the Council for American Private Education, a pro-voucher group, more than 180,000 students in private schools currently receive Title I services, such as remedial reading instruction. In its December newsletter, CAPE complains that not enough private school students are being served.

Meanwhile, an assortment of right-wing activists and groups is pressuring Congress to "voucherize" components of the Title I program. Under their plan, parents would receive federal subsidies to buy remedial education services directly from private providers, including religious schools.

Education Week reported last November that driving forces in the move include the Heritage Foundation; the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a pro-voucher group headed by anti-public school activist Chester E. Finn; William Bennett and Lamar Alexander of Empower America and Lisa Graham Keegan, Arizona state superintendent of schools.

The attempt is expected to face stiff opposition from congressional Democrats, who argue that Title I needs fine-tuning, not a major overhaul. Some Republicans may oppose it as well, including Rep. Bill Goodling (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Goodling has been reluctant to support vouchers in the past, arguing that they will lead to government regulation of private schools.

These well-funded pro-voucher organizations have ambitious plans that go way beyond "pilot programs" and "voucher experiments" -- and they intend to keep the heat on Congress to get them. Last September CEO America held a school-choice conference in the nation's capital during which Alexander, who is seeking the GOP presidential nomination in 2000, called on Congress to spend $2 billion on voucher programs for low-income parents. He recommended raiding Title I for half of the money, with the other $1 billion being new funds.

About a week before that event, leading pro-voucher activists met in D.C. for what CAPE called a "school choice summit." Speakers included Clint Bolick of the Institute for Justice, Nina Shokraii of the Heritage Foundation and Harvard University professor Paul Peterson.

Peterson's participation in the event is revealing, as he often poses as an objective researcher of voucher plans. In fact, Peterson is a long-time advocate of parochial school aid who works closely with pro-voucher organizations and who has recently penned a pro-voucher book titled Lessons from School Choice.

Americans United remains alert to any voucher threats in Congress and will work hard to educate members of Congress about the pitfalls and constitutional problems of religious school aid schemes.