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Senate says 'no' to voucher pilot program


By Ian Christopher McCaleb
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Senate refused Tuesday afternoon to sign off on a plan by New Hampshire Republican Judd Gregg that would have created a series of pilot programs allowing use of school vouchers.

Gregg's proposal, introduced as an amendment during the chamber's debate on a bill to revamp the public education system, fell 41-58 in a vote at mid-afternoon.

The vote likely ended attempts to attach voucher provisions to Congress' efforts to overhaul public education -- perhaps for the year.


The Senate has been debating its own version of President Bush's education proposal for nearly a month and a half, beginning when the bill was brought up by the Republicans, then in the majority, and continuing through last week's Democratic takeover.

Gregg's amendment would have set aside $50 million for pilot programs in 10 cities scattered across three states that would have allowed parents to withdraw their children from failing schools and move them to more successful establishments using a "voucher," a payout from the federal government, to cover the costs.

"You cannot accomplish the American dream unless you are well educated," Gregg argued on the Senate floor. "If you go to a school system which does not teach and is filled with violence and filled with drugs ... then that school is not able to teach that child, and that child cannot participate in the American dream."

Bush has promoted education reform as one of the most pressing priorities of his young administration. As an early candidate for the Republican nomination for president, Bush introduced his education overhaul proposals months before the primary election season.

He called for a testing regimen to get lagging or failing schools on track, saying student proficiency must be measured so parents will know whether their children are advancing -- and so school administrators will know whether their teachers are meeting local standards.

Under Bush's original plan, schools that continued to miss targets for student improvement would see portions of the federal money they receive taken away and handed to parents in the form of "vouchers," which parents could apply by sending their children to better schools.

Bush suggested on the campaign trail that parents could send their children to another public school, a charter school or a private school with the money. He estimated the value of such a voucher could be as much as $1,500.

But Democrats and moderate Republicans in Congress voiced strong objections to that sentiment, saying any denial of funds to public schools determined to be in dire need of improvement would only worsen the situation for the students left behind at that school.

On average, the federal government's portion of any given school district's budget is about 6 percent, but Democrats argued even that small amount makes a great difference in the ability of school systems to improve themselves.

The House rejected voucher amendments when it debated its own version of the bill at the end of last month.

Gregg received some Democratic support during the day's debate.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Connecticut, described Gregg's proposal as a "short-term lifeline for the children in this program."

"There is no guarantee that this program would succeed," Lieberman said, "but that is the point of this test."

Democrats, supported by some moderate Republicans and the newly independent James Jeffords of Vermont, held firm to their view that the program was misguided.

"By an 80 percent margin, Americans prefer investment in public schools to vouchers, said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Connecticut, citing exit polls from last November's election.

An impassioned Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pennsylvania, raised his voice in the chamber as he argued Gregg's side, asking repeatedly, "What are we afraid of here?"

The bill is expected to pass the Senate later in the week and head directly to a House-Senate negotiating session.

Although testing provisions are expected to remain in the bill, parents of students in failing schools will likely be granted some amount of federal money to pay for tutors, or to transfer their children to other public schools, in place of Bush's initial aspirations for vouchers.

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