Choosing "Choice": George Bush and Federal Aid to Nonpublic Schools

Article excerpt

On April 9, 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), he ended three decades of debate over whether the federal government should assist states and localities in financing their schools. Title I of the Act allocated $1.06 billion to be distributed by state education officials to aid local school district projects directed at "educationally deprived children." The funds were not to finance either construction or teachers' salaries, but could pay for "shared-time" programs by which nonpublic school pupils attend classes at public schools.Title II provided $100 million for the purchase of textbooks and other materials and the expansion of school libraries for nonpublic and public school children, through public agencies. Title III earmarked $100 million for "supplemental services and centers" open to nonpublic as well as public school children.1

If the ESEA's provisions for public schools settled one thirty-year dispute, its concessions to nonpublic schools started another. Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan, as well as most Congressional Republicans, would advocate additional federal expenditures for nonpublic schools, while President Jimmy Carter and most Congressional Democrats would oppose them. When George H. W Bush entered the White House,public opinion had turned in favor of federal aid to nonpublic schools. Bush had committed himself to it in the 1988 campaign and had promised to succeed where Nixon, Ford, and Reagan had failed in enacting such assistance. Though he would ultimately redeem this promise by supporting nonpublic school vouchers, he would not fulfill it. Economic and political realities shortened the Bush Presidency, and lengthened the wait for nonpublic school "choice."

A Promise Broken

The initial erosion of Bush's position came even before he had taken the oath of office. A White House Workshop on Choice in Education held ten days before the end of the Reagan Presidency narrowed the definition of "choice" to public schools. Neither President Reagan nor President-elect Bush addressed the gathering. The Secretary of Education, Lauro Cavazos, replaced a speech advocating nonpublic school vouchers, which had been written for him by Assistant Secretary of Education Patricia Hines, with one opposing such aid.2

Two months later the breach of promise was complete. On March 14, over the bipartisan objections of ninety members of the House of Representatives, Cavazos fired Hines."Experience shows that choice works; Cavazos wrote on March 21, citing dramatic increases in reading proficiency among the school populations of East Harlem, New York, and Montclair, New Jersey, where public school choice experiments were underway. "Research shows that choice encourages differentiation among schools, reduces dropout rates, increases teacher satisfaction, and encourages parental involvement." On March 29, at a White House question-and-answer session with high school students, a private school pupil asked the new President if his parents should receive a tax break for tuition. "No, they shouldn't," Bush replied. "Everybody should support the public school system and then, if on top of that your parents think that they want to shell out, in addition to the tax money, tuition money, that's their right. But I don't think they should get a break for that."3

"Choice in education" in the Bush Administration, therefore, was to mean choices for parents to send their children to public schools. Bush's "Educational Excellence Act of 1989," submitted to Congress in April, included a provision for specialized "magnet" schools to which parents could send their public school children. In May Cavazos released two reports employing this definition: a guide for parents, "Choosing a School for Your Child," and a summary of state programs, "Progress, Problems, and Prospects of State Education Choice Plans." The Secretary addressed the Education Press Association on the subject, and convened four regional conferences of governors, legislators, and educators "to develop innovations to promote choice in their respective areas. …