WASHINGTON – The House Education Committee voted Wednesday to strip private school vouchers from President Bush's education legislation, a setback for conservatives that also appeared to boost the bill's chances of gaining bipartisan support.
The vote came as both houses of Congress intensified work on the bill atop Bush's agenda, a measure designed to improve student performance as measured through annual tests.
While Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, gaveled the House committee into session, key lawmakers in the Senate said they had nailed down an agreement on policy differences in a companion bill.
Bush conceded in advance the voucher provision was doomed to defeat. "There are people that are afraid of choice," he told regional reporters in an interview published in the run-up to committee debate on his plan, dubbed "Leave No Child Behind," to provide more flexibility to schools and demand better student performance.
Bush was also quoted as saying, "And I'm a realist. I understand that. It doesn't change my opinion, but it's not going to change the votes, either," the president added on the subject of vouchers. At the same time, he expressed optimism the main elements of his approach would clear Congress.
Boehner and some Democrats on his committee said much the same thing.
"I think it keeps us on track toward a bipartisan piece of legislation," said Boehner, who strongly supported Bush on the issue. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who led the effort to remove the voucher provision, said, "We knew that, clearly, vouchers were going to be a poison pill to a bipartisan bill. ... We've got a lot of amendments to go, but this was the big one."
Republicans on the House committee sought to salvage the voucher provision that would allow low-income students in poorly performing schools to use federal funds for private school tuition.
"If this provision is eliminated, we have lost most of the president's vision for education reform because the only thing this bill will do is empower the bureaucrats in Washington," said Rep. Petrer Hoekstra, R-Mich.
Critics argued that vouchers would drain needed resources away from public schools.
Rep. Lynn Rivers, likened the proposal for vouchers to the medical practice of leeching in earlier centuries, a process in which patients rarely got better. "Instead of bleeding the public school system dry," she said, Congress should invest in new technology and other areas that would help schools.