Riley Launches Attack on School Vouchers
By Rene Sanchez
Education Secretary Richard W. Riley yesterday denounced attempts in Congress and in states to give students vouchers for private schooling, calling them dubious plans that would greatly harm public schools at a time when many are starting to make progress.
In a harsh attack on a concept that Republican leaders in Congress want to bring to the District and cities across the nation, Riley said vouchers would take enormous amounts of money from schools struggling with record enrollments and hardly produce the academic miracles its proponents promise.
"It's a very simplistic world view, a silver-bullet solution, and it is just dead wrong," he said. "If a school is failing, the solution isn't to give scholarships to 50 children and leave 500 behind, but to fix the problem, fix the whole school."
Riley's remarks are part of a larger offensive by the Clinton administration to derail several new bills in Congress that would sanction vouchers nationwide. So far, only two cities, Milwaukee and Cleveland, have tested the idea.
Responding to polls that suggest growing support for vouchers among parents, particularly minorities, Republican leaders have vowed to make the issue their top priority for the nation's schools.
One proposal would divide $7 million among 2,000 needy students in the District so that they could attend private schools at public expense. Another measure would allow the parents, relatives or sponsors of students nationwide to establish after-tax savings accounts for private elementary or secondary school tuition. Up to $2,000 a year per child could be contributed, and the interest would be tax-free.
Riley warned yesterday that the passage of either initiative would likely draw a swift veto from President Clinton, who has expressed adamant opposition to vouchers ever since he was elected. Both of the nation's teacher unions and many other education groups also oppose the idea.
Yet to voucher supporters, the timing and tenor of Riley's comments yesterday suggested that the administration senses public sentiment changing. Riley has criticized vouchers in the past but never called a news conference just to make a detailed case against the subject.
"This shows how worried they are," said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a policy group that backs vouchers. "Support for this is growing, and it's because parents are tired of public schools that have no incentive to improve."
Few debates in American education are more intense or divisive now than the one over vouchers. To supporters, the tuition stipends would give poor families trapped in bad public schools more choice about where to have their children educated, and would introduce competition into public education for the first time. Opponents say that vouchers would help a few needy children, at best, at the expense of most students. Schools that already lack money and committed parents, they say, would lose even more.
Riley stressed that point yesterday, saying vouchers pose a great threat to the future of public education. He also proposed using the $7 million that some lawmakers want to spend on vouchers in the District instead for new initiatives in reading and for after-school programs at sites around the city.
"The last thing we should be doing at a time when so many of our schools are bursting at the seams is to be draining public tax dollars from public education to subsidize private education," Riley said.
The fate of the voucher programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee is still uncertain. In both places, attempts to let students use vouchers to attend religious schools have been blocked by state courts ruling that doing so would violate the separation of church and state. Also, researchers are still feuding over a bottom-line question whether students with vouchers do substantially better in school than those without them.
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