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Can Bush Buy Triangulation With A $1500 Voucher?

It will be interesting to see how Republicans and conservatives defend the $1,500 provision in President Bush's education package. The Bush proposal allows Title 1 funding to be used to subsidize private school tuition, tutors, or a switch to another public school for those students who are in public schools that fail to make academic progress after three years. We wonder aloud if the "voucher" provision is anything more than an attempt by President Bush to simultaneously appease and neutralize school choice advocates as he offers a sacrificial lamb to Congressional Democrats.

One of the reasons that President Bush and his staff have backed away from using the word 'vouchers" to describe the $1,500 provision is because the idea that $1,500 can buy anybody a quality private education is laughable, even on the surface. On Sunday we saw Bush Chief of Staff Andrew Card, Senior Adviser Karl Rove and Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige skate and dance around the issue on the Sunday morning talk shows - all mindful to not allow the "v-word" to fall from their lips as they explained and defended Bush's program.

With tuition costs for several private schools running in the $5,000 range one can hardly accept the rationale that the money provides a low-income family with "private-school" options.

Indeed, we noticed how easily Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Ca.) was able to defeat her fellow Californian Congressman, Chris Cox, in debate over this very point on the Paula Zahn show on Monday night. Rep. Cox had absolutely no rebuttal to Rep. Waters question as to what private schools can be found that cost only $1,500

And even Congressional Republicans have already begun to concede that Bush's proposal is more symbol than substance with Republican Congressman Rep. Michael N. Castle calling the provision " voucher - lite".

We think Bush does well to set aside $1,500 for tutor expenses and even for transportation costs necessary to move a student from a failing public school to a better public school. The numbers add up for those two options. But to give Black single mothers the impression that $1,500 goes along way to getting one into a private institution is disingenuous.

The idea that $1,500 can help someone afford private tuition is true and even a good one at that. But that is not how vouchers have been sold to date. Overtly or through implication, Republicans and conservatives alike have sold voucher amounts as sufficient to pay for the vast majority of private tuition costs.

Anyone selling this part of Bush's education proposal should be upfront with low-income parents and let them know that they will need a few more thousand dollars to ensure that their child is comfortably in a private school.

And we are confident that several of these parents will do what it takes to find the additional funds to move their child out of a public school disaster. Some parents will take on an additional part-time job; others will borrow the money to make up for the difference. And then there are school choice proponents in the private sector like Ted Forstman, who have made it their life's work to provide parents with the additional funding in the form of private school scholarships.

However, with each passing year it seems that the amount of voucher programs that style themselves as answers to a failing public schools system get smaller and smaller. In 1998-1999 Republicans added a voucher provision to a spending bill for Washington D.C. that would have allowed parents to use government money to pay for private school tuition. The amount of the voucher was over $3,000.

I will never forget a conversation I had in 1998 with ace Democratic political consultant Bob Shrum about the DC voucher-proposal. He told me that he and a friend called almost every private school of merit in D.C. and could not find one for which the voucher would cover the costs. He was supremely confident that Republicans would never win popular support for vouchers as long as the dollar amount was so low.

Shrum may be proven correct.

Then last year we saw Cleveland provide up to $2,250 in tuition expenses for more than 3,700 students.

Now President Bush has "devalued" vouchers to a paltry $1,500 per student.

Which leaves us to believe that President Bush is attempting to "triangulate" by stacking an education program with Democratic-endorsed ideas like standardized testing and increased accountability while slipping in a voucher provision that he knows will be rejected by Democrats but which allows him to save face with the school choice wing of the Republican Party.

We can smell a deal a mile away on this one and with the appearance of an education proposal by the masters of compromise - Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Ct.) and his New Democrat posse - that mirrors the Bush plan in several areas, we are now almost convinced that a "gentleman's agreement" has already been worked about between Republicans and moderate and conservative Democrats that will result in the $1,500 voucher provision being left out of a final education bill.

Our opinion was emboldened even further when we learned that the all-powerful teacher's union, which holds enormous sway in the Democratic Party, has bought into the Lieberman proposal.

$1,500 may not buy inner city students a private education but it may have bought President Bush and moderate Democrats their first deal.

Let's hope that in all of the political chess playing that our children can get a quality education - public or private.

Cedric Muhammad

Wednesday, January 24, 2001

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