An article Tuesday misstated the position of Rep. Thomas E. Petri (R-Wis.) on proposals to convert the Title 1 remedial education program into school vouchers, a change he supports. (Published 09/30/99)

For two decades, congressional Republicans have pushed to convert federal education aid into vouchers that students could redeem at private schools, a proposal repeatedly blocked by Democrats.

Now, for the first time, a Republican-controlled Congress has the chance to put the party's imprint on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the law that has determined federal education policy since 1965 and is up for renewal this year. But for pragmatic reasons, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce has left vouchers out of its draft legislation for Title 1, the government's largest school aid program at $8 billion annually.

The omission of a voucher provision from the draft bill, which the committee is to vote on next week, is all the more notable because earlier this month Republican presidential front-runner George W. Bush proposed an experimental program that would permit Title 1 funds, which are used to provide remedial education to disadvantaged students, to be used for vouchers. Bush has said he intends to make education policy a key element of his campaign.

But rather than put forward an ideological proposal that would invite a veto from President Clinton, Republican members of the House committee decided to negotiate a bipartisan draft acceptable to their Democratic counterparts, a decidedly liberal group that opposes vouchers. The slim GOP majority in the House, politically punished in recent elections for appearing unconcerned about improving the nation's schools, hopes to win public approval for passing the education legislation.

"It's always nice if you can make education programs as bipartisan as possible. I think we can do it, but there'll be some sticking points," Education and the Workforce Chairman William F. Goodling (R-Pa.) said.

Goodling indicated that he has reservations about turning Title 1 into a voucher program, which he said could become "a logistical nightmare" for school officials. Two other senior Republicans on the committee, Rep. Thomas E. Petri (Wis.) and Rep. Marge Roukema (N.J.), have said they oppose vouchers. Their opposition means voucher supporters are likely to have a hard time mustering votes to attach a plan to the draft bill in the committee. Such amendments could also be offered when the bill reaches the House floor in the coming weeks.

Title 1 funds are now distributed to schools with large concentrations of disadvantaged students, primarily defined as those who live in poverty. Under Bush's voucher proposal, a disadvantaged student in a school that did not meet a state's academic standards after three years could take a per-pupil share of Title 1 funds and use the money to pay for private school or tutoring service. State money would be added to bring the voucher's value to $1,500. (The federal government spends about $650 in Title 1 funds on each student, according to the Education Department.)

The draft bill, according to House aides from both parties, does include a provision that would require school districts to allow disadvantaged students in failing schools to transfer to another public school, including charter schools. But federal funding for Title 1 would not follow the student, as it would under Bush's proposal.

"[Vouchers] should be a natural thing to ask for. I'm personally disappointed they're not pushing harder to make it happen," said Nina Shokraii Rees, education analyst at the Heritage Foundation, which has long advocated school vouchers.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) has drafted two bills that would allow states and school districts to convert Title 1 into vouchers that could be used to pay tuition at private schools if state law allows public funds to be spent in that way. Only Florida, Wisconsin, Maine and Vermont do.