School Voucher Foes Find Lieberman a Vexing Choice

Education: Differences with Gore open ticket to criticism from core backers, and give Bush an opening

WASHINGTON—For all their zeal to improve schools, most Democrats obey what might be called their 1st Commandment on education reform: Thou shalt not support vouchers. Al Gore has espoused this article of faith often in his presidential campaign, repeating it Wednesday.

But when Gore earlier this week picked as his running mate Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, he selected a lawmaker who frequently supported experiments with spending public money–via vouchers–to help parents pay tuition at private schools.

This political mixed signal from the Democratic ticket has given Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush an opening to publicize his own plan to offer vouchers to parents of disadvantaged children who attend public schools that fail to meet certain standards.

Both parties know the issue resonates nationwide, where a number of communities have debated the pros and cons of vouchers. These arguments will be spotlighted in California, where Proposition 38 on the November ballot proposes giving parents $ 4,000 in state money each year to send their children to private schools.

Lieberman’s stance on vouchers is by no means his only break from the Democratic line on education. And his maverick streak on the topic raises questions about what role he would play in education affairs if Gore is elected.

The senator voted for tax-deferred savings accounts that would help parents pay for public and private educational expenses–legislation President Clinton vetoed two years ago. He was a supporter of charter schools–which are public but free from most state and local regulations–years before other Democrats embraced the concept. He sponsored legislation that would overhaul federal bilingual education programs in an effort to get children to learn English as fast as possible, an approach many Democrats view as harmful to immigrant students who are not native speakers.

This background has not gone unnoticed in education circles.

Playing Up Positives of Differences

Lieberman “is a very strange choice for Al Gore,” said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, which supports charter schools, voucher experiments and other efforts to shake up public education. “Joe Lieberman is decidedly education-reform oriented . . . and not at all glued to the establishment like Gore is.”

As Gore and Lieberman continued to campaign together Wednesday, they portrayed their differences on school vouchers as evidence that the vice president is unafraid to consider opinions that conflict with his own.

Gore reiterated his strong opposition to vouchers, saying his administration would try to block any efforts to use federal money to pay private-school tuition.

But during a joint appearance with Lieberman on Wednesday, Gore said, “I think it’s a strength and not a weakness, an asset, not a liability to be able to have a different point of view represented in the room at the time that decisions are being made.”

Lieberman, as is customary for vice presidential candidates, downplayed the difference on vouchers and stressed the views he shares with Gore–in this case, investing more in public education and demanding better results.

“I have supported vouchers,” Lieberman said, “there’s no question about it, to test the program, to see how it works for poor kids, and also to judge the effect on the public schools. What I’m saying is that it’s not my only position on education. And on the big issues, we’re together.”

Teacher unions, a pillar of support for Gore and one of the most formidable political players in California and many other states, are fervent in their opposition to vouchers. Such plans, in their view, would undermine if not destroy public education by diverting tax money to private schools they say may not meet accepted standards for teacher training and accountability.

Voucher supporters, who generally have been Republicans, counter that vouchers can help provide an alternative, especially to families in poorer communities, to public schools that clearly are not improving. And they argue that such competition would spur improvements in public education.

With Gore’s selection of Lieberman, union representatives have been put on the spot. Should they go after Lieberman on vouchers? Or just praise him to boost the ticket?

Bella Rosenberg, assistant to the president of the American Federation of Teachers, tried both.

“Sen. Lieberman’s support for public education is unquestionable,” she said. “He has never been out to destroy the public education system. He has an excellent voting record, an open mind, is a really intelligent person.”

But she acknowledged: “Look, I’m not saying opposition to vouchers isn’t way up there on our list. It is. We have a disagreement on that, and there’s no papering it over.”

A Lieberman aide, Dan Gerstein, said the senator’s views on vouchers were influenced by the academic record of Catholic schools in Connecticut. Lieberman’s own children, Gerstein added, have attended both public and private schools.

In the Senate, Lieberman several times has supported allowing federal money to be used for voucher programs in the District of Columbia and elsewhere. His most recent such vote came last November. While voucher programs using local money have been tried in a handful of areas around the country, none of the federal voucher measures has become law.

Proposition 38 in California likely will be seen as a bellwether on the issue that could influence federal policy. Although state voters soundly defeated a voucher initiative in 1993, a poll released today by the Public Policy Institute of California shows a virtual dead heat on Proposition 38.

While his position on vouchers draws the most notice, Lieberman and his allies argue it is not central to his education philosophy. At his core, they say, is a pragmatic approach that aims to bridge partisan differences.

A case in point is a Lieberman bill sponsored this year–dubbed “The Three Rs,” for “reinvestment, reinvention and responsibility”–that sought to overhaul how the federal government spends billions of dollars each year in elementary and secondary schools.

Lieberman took the temperature of both political camps as he crafted the bill. There were no provisions for vouchers, which would have drawn Democratic fire. Nor were there significant proposals for new federal school construction, anathema to most Republicans.

Ultimately, his bill proposed to:

* Consolidate dozens of federal education programs into a handful;

* Allow local educators more discretion to spend money as they see fit in exchange for measurable progress in student achievement;

* Significantly raise spending for Title I, the $ 8-billion-per-year initiative to help disadvantaged students, by half.

‘Putting the Priority . . . on Performance’

The bill also would have more than doubled bilingual education funding, to $ 1 billion a year, but recast the federal programs to ensure that the first priority is for immigrant children to learn English. That is a message heard often in the wake of California’s approval of Proposition 227 in 1998 to sharply limit bilingual teaching, a measure the administration opposed.

Lieberman, pitching for compromise, told the Senate his aim was “putting the priority for federal programs on performance instead of process, and on delivering results instead of developing rules. . . . We must admit that our public schools are not working for a lot of our kids.”

When it came to a vote in May, the legislation won support from only 13 Democrats and no Republicans. But all efforts to overhaul education programs have stalled this year in a Senate riven by deep partisanship. Congress will likely wait for leadership from a new president before acting on major school legislation.

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Times Sacramento Bureau Chief Rone Tempest contributed to this story.



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