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Bush Hijacks Pell Grants for School Vouchers

January 29, 2008

In his last State of the Union address, President Bush fired one final salvo his war against public education in signature fashion. Not to content to endorse yet another conservative school voucher scheme, President Bush appropriated the name of the very popular Pell Grant program to market it. And by targeting African-Americans with his "Pell Grants for Kids," Bush zeroed in on the one Democratic constituency conservatives believe might support it.
Back in 2006, Democrats steamrolled to a majority in Congress with an agenda that included an expansion of the Pell Grant program of college tuition assistance. Last September, President Bush signed a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. student loan program, a bill that passed overwhelmingly in both houses with only Republicans voting no. Of the bill, which caps student loan payments, reduces interest rates and expands the value of a Pell Grant to $5,400 by 2012, President Bush proclaimed, "I look forward to working with the Congress to ensure Pell Grant increases that are not fully funded in this bill are paid for with offsets in other areas."
If Bush has his way, one of those areas won't be school vouchers. In his speech last night, the President made one final push to start the slippery slope process of defunding public schools in order to subsidize religious and other private schools:

"We must also do more to help children when their schools do not measure up. Thanks to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships you approved, more than 2,600 of the poorest children in our Nation's Capital have found new hope at a faith-based or other non-public school. Sadly, these schools are disappearing at an alarming rate in many of America's inner cities. So I will convene a White House summit aimed at strengthening these lifelines of learning. And to open the doors of these schools to more children, I ask you to support a new $300 million program called Pell Grants for Kids. We have seen how Pell Grants help low-income college students realize their full potential. Together, we've expanded the size and reach of these grants. Now let us apply that same spirit to help liberate poor children trapped in failing public schools."

That private schools do not outperform public institutions (as ThinkProgress noted in response last night) is of no concern to President Bush and his allies advancing the voucher agenda. Needless to say, the White House backed the DC voucher regime Bush mentioned in the SOTU. In 2002, the Bush administration successfully backed Cleveland's voucher program before the Supreme Court, a transfer of public funds to the city's Catholic schools. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, President Bush opportunistically proposed a $1.9 billion Trojan horse program of school vouchers for children in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. And last January, President Bush proposed adding $4,000 vouchers to his revised No Child Left Behind bill.
Americans have consistently opposed voucher programs over the past decade. Since 1998, on average 57% of survey respondents have been against vouchers, with only 40% in favor. A 2006 poll saw the number in opposition rise to 60%.
Whether African-Americans and other minority groups support voucher payments to private schools, as conservative groups contend, remains a subject of raging debate. While polls in the late 1990's showed support for voucher programs among Washington DC residents, surveys in 2000 and 2001 showed opposition among a majority of black respondents nationally. And a 2001 Zogby poll revealed that African-American parents favored investments in smaller class sizes over voucher payments by a 7 to 1 margin. African-Americans in California (68%) and Michigan (78%) voted overwhelmingly against school voucher ballot initiatives in their states. Yet the expansion of urban voucher programs continues, with anecdotal evidence of minority support continuously offered by the press and right-wing think tanks alike.
President Bush clearly seems to think so. By targeting lower income and minority Americans, Bush and his conservative allies hope to chip away at the still formidable public support for public schools. And in much the same way he sold policies the Americans opposed with warm, friendly name like "Healthy Forests" and "Clear Skies", President Bush has hijacked the Pell Grants' good name to peddle his latest voucher scheme.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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