Author:Boston, Rob

House Speaker Hastert, Religious Right Give Church School Aid High Priority In Congress

While a torrent of voucher threats are expected in the states this year, church-state separationists also expect to see a big push for religious school aid in the U.S. Congress as well.

The resignation of Speaker Newt Gingrich means the cast of characters in Washington has changed somewhat, but the script is expected to remain the same. Gingrich's replacement, newly installed House Speaker Dennis Hasten (R-Ill.), has pledged to make education a priority this year. Unfortunately, Hastert, a Religious Right sympathizer, has also indicated that he makes no distinction between public and private schools. Both, he asserts, deserve the support of the taxpayers.

"When we talk about education we talk about education for all children, public and private," Hasten said during a press conference in Batavia, Ill., Dec. 30. "Every kid in this country needs to have a fair shake when it comes to education."

Although Hastert pledged new ideas that would gain bipartisan support, The Washington Post reported that two of the GOP's major education planks for 1999 are a voucher plan aimed at low-income families and a plan to permit families to establish tax-deferred education savings accounts to help pay for home schooling and private school tuition. Critics say these are old, divisive ideas that the GOP has been pushing for years. House Republicans are also expected to introduce a pilot voucher program for the District of Columbia, a pet project they've promoted unsuccessfully since 1994.

The Republicans have added three new members to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce -- Reps. Tom G. Tancredo of Colorado, Ernie L. Fletcher of Kentucky and Jim DeMint of South Carolina. All three support vouchers.

Tancredo has already promised to make vouchers a top priority. The new Colorado congressman, a U.S. Department of Education staffer under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, is a Religious Right activist who spearheaded a 1992 effort that put a private school voucher referendum on the state ballot. It was crushed at the polls, 67 percent against to 33 percent for, but Tancredo is not deterred.

A huge congressional battle is also looming over the reauthorization of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. ESEA, with 14 divisions and a $60 billion price tag, is...

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