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Federal dollars to private schools?

This week the Senate debates a first-in-history voucher program for private and parochial students in the capital.

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There is no issue in public education as hard fought as the effort to keep public dollars away from private schools, and its most epic battle is about to open in the Senate.

At stake is whether, for the first time, federal dollars will fund a voucher program for children to attend private, including religious, schools. The target is the nation's capital - a huge symbolic victory for pro-voucher forces, who call their issue the "new civil-rights movement."

Equally passionate, opponents say that vouchers will give politicians a dangerous exit from their responsibility to provide a quality public education for all children. No one doubts the importance of the Senate debate, which is expected as early as Tuesday.

"To get a school-choice program in Washington, D.C., would have a seismic impact, more than any other city where we could get such a program passed," says Clint Bolick, vice president of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm that has defended every school-choice program in the United States.

There are currently five publicly-funded voucher programs in the US - including Milwaukee (1990), Cleveland (1995), and Florida (1999). Maine and Vermont have run "tuitioning" programs for towns too small for a public high school since the 18th century.

The US Senate debate comes a year after a long-awaited Supreme Court decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, which narrowly upheld the constitutionality of the Cleveland voucher program.

In the past, public school choice has failed every time it has come before voter. Congress passed a limited Washington, D.C., voucher program in 1997, but it was vetoed by President Clinton. That would not be the response of President Bush, who favors vouchers.

"One of the reasons we urged the entire school-choice movement to make D.C. a national priority this year is that we have a Republican Senate, House, and president, and there are some of us who do not count on having that situation forever," says Mr. Bolick.

After an emotional debate, the House voted to attach an experimental, five-year voucher program to the $40 million D.C. spending bill. The program would provide "opportunity scholarships" of up to $7,500 to some 1,300 low-income students in low-performing schools. A second vote was held open an additional 25 minutes, until a Republican who had opposed the plan changed his vote. The $10 million measure passed, 209-208.

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