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Education savings accounts, vouchers fail in Congress

WASHINGTON (BP)–Two educational reform measures that would increase parents’ economic ability to choose alternative schools for their children have failed in Congress.
As Congress neared adjournment for the year, the Senate failed to break a filibuster on legislation establishing education savings accounts, while the House of Representatives defeated a school voucher proposal.
Though the backers of the Parent and Student Savings Account Plus Act had a majority in the Senate, they fell four votes short of the 60 needed to invoke cloture and cut off debate. The 56-44 vote came as a result of six Democrats reversing their position after supporting the legislation this summer. All but one of the Senate’s 55 Republicans voted for cloture.
In the House the same day, a bill to provide vouchers to lower-income students failed, 228-191.
The education savings account bill, with Sen. Paul Coverdell, R.-Ga., as chief sponsor, allows parents, grandparents or scholarship sponsors to place as much as $2,500 a year for a child in an account at a tax-free rate if the savings are used for education. This post-tax money could be used for kindergarten through 12th-grade students at private, religious or home schools, but it also could be utilized for such expenses as tutoring, uniforms or home computers for public-school students.
The House passed the measure Oct. 23 by a 230-198 vote.
The proposal was rejected by President Clinton and removed from the budget deal this summer. At that time, it was known as the Coverdell amendment. The president remained opposed to it as a free-standing bill.
“The Clinton administration continues to do everything in its power to prevent parents from having real choice in the education of their children,” Coverdell said in a written statement after the Senate vote Nov. 4. “And although the White House has temporarily delayed final passage of education savings accounts, I am very confident that by early next year we will be able to conclude an agreement with the key Democrats needed to secure passage.”
The legislation was one of 10 immediate legislative priorities listed by the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission in an August letter to members of Congress.
The savings account plan is consistent with a 1996 SBC resolution supporting parental choice in education, as well as with the principles of religious liberty in The Baptist Faith and Message, said Will Dodson, the ERLC’s director of public policy.
“It is simply a measure to allow families to keep more of their money to spend on education the way they feel best,” Dodson said. “At the heart of the opposition to this provision is the idea that our lives should revolve around what the government feels is best for all people in the area of education. This mentality should be of particular concern to parents in many parts of the country where the values of those who control the agenda in public schools is increasingly contrary to the values of Christian parents.”
The National Education Association is among the opponents. In a written statement, NEA President Bob Chase called the proposal inadequate and a “cynical attempt to edge toward a federal subsidy for private school tuition.”
“Funds diverted in this scheme would be better spent for early childhood education, school modernization and educational technology,” Chase said.
In the House, the voucher plan defeated would have allowed low-income families to use the money at the private, religious or public school of their choice.
Chief sponsor Frank Riggs, R.-Calif., said in floor debate, “Providing parents with the right to choose where their child learns is about saving yet another generation of poor, usually inner-city, minority children from a life of low-income jobs, welfare dependency or jail.
“Schools should be a magnet, not a trap. Let me tell my colleagues one thing I believe to the core of my being, and that is the education system we have in America today will reform itself, it will improve itself only when parents are free to choose the schools that they think are best able to educate their children.”
Opponents of the legislation warned it would harm public schools and, to a lesser extent, argued it would threaten church-state separation.