WASHINGTON – President Bush's education package is gaining momentum, but without a voucher plan that would let low-income students in poorly performing schools use federal funds for private school tuition.
The House Education Committee voted Wednesday to strip private school vouchers from Bush's education legislation in a setback for conservatives that will likely will boost the bill's chances for Democratic support.
"I think that winning the voucher vote is a very, very important step toward a positive, bipartisan bill," said Rep. David Wu, D-Ore.
Even as the voucher plan was going down to defeat, congressional leaders picked up the pace on the president's education package with agreements on school testing and help for pupils in failing schools.
Education debate has stalled for weeks in the Senate as lawmakers discussed details of how test scores should be weighed. GOP and Democratic senators were expected to announce an agreement on testing Thursday.
Meanwhile, the House and Senate were intensifying work on their own versions of a major education bill, which has provisions designed to improve pupil performance while giving more freedom to schools to spend federal funds.
Throughout the debate, Democrats have pushed for more money for K-12 education, which this year will receive about $18.6 billion. Republicans have said Bush's proposed increase of just under $1 billion was sufficient, but Democrats have continued to push for more, initially proposing to add about $13 billion in 2002. By Thursday, the two sides appeared close to an agreement that would authorize an estimated $4 billion more.
The two bills are similar at their core. Each would require that students be tested annually on reading and math from the third grade until the eighth. School districts would be granted greater flexibility in their use of federal funds, a provision designed to give local officials the ability to direct resources to their greatest needs -- higher teacher salaries, for example, or improved classroom technology.
The committee vote to remove the voucher provision was 27-20, with five Republicans siding with all the panel's Democrats.
As it stands, low-income students in failing schools would still be allowed to transfer to another public school and use federal funds for tutoring.
Conservatives registered their displeasure at the vote.
"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. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich.
Critics argued that vouchers would drain needed resources away from public schools.
"Vouchers aren't as popular as this administration would have you believe," said Rep. Hilda Solis, D-Calif. She said Congress should invest more in school construction, saying she was disappointed that a construction amendment was defeated.
"A lot of my kids, they go to school in portables," she said.
Bush conceded in advance the voucher provision was doomed to defeat, but Education Department spokeswoman Lindsey Kozberg said Bush still supports "parental choice" and looks forward to floor amendments reintroducing vouchers in both the House and Senate.
Kozberg also predicted that the main elements of his package would clear Congress.
House members said much the same thing.
"I think it keeps us on track toward a bipartisan piece of legislation," said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio.