PHILADELPHIA -- Amid some of the most intense lobbying ever seen in this state, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives has defeated a bill that would have provided a $900 education voucher to the parents of every schoolchild and the right to spend it at the public, private or religious school of their choice.
The bill had become such a hot potato that legislators in Harrisburg avoided debating it or even voting on it directly. Instead they took the highly unusual step Wednesday of voting, 114-89, to table the measure on the grounds that it would have violated state constitutional prohibitions against providing public money for religious institutions.
Legal opinion about the constitutionality of the bill had been divided, but such questions have rarely deterred the Pennsylvania Legislature from pioneering new areas of law, including one of the nation's most restrictive abortion laws two years ago.
The state Senate had already passed a similar tuition voucher bill, the first in the nation to come so close to being enacted. The legislation closely conformed to President Bush's proposal for improving schools by forcing them to compete for students, who would bring government subsidies in the form of vouchers to the school they attended.
Opponents were delighted by the procedural victory. "I think it's wonderful they are starting to take seriously their responsibility to uphold the Constitution," said Susan J. Frietsche, the deputy director of the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union.
The sponsors of the bill said that many colleagues who had pledged to support it backed away after it appeared to be in trouble. "They ducked the issue today, and that's shameful, but we will be back," said Stephen F. Freind, a Republican from suburban Philadelphia who was one of the sponsors.
The legislative battle crossed party lines and pitted church groups against each other and public school officials, with coalitions trying to discredit each other in advertisements and publicity campaigns.
Supporters said the voucher system would foster competition between public and private schools and would help middle-class families that have private school tuition bills.
They also said the legislation would provide a way for children in poor school districts to transfer to private schools or to better school districts.
Opponents said that the legislation was primarily an enormous public bailout for parochial schools.
The only thing the adversaries agreed on was that there was no money in the state budget for the program, which would have cost about $300 million the first school year, 1993-1994, and possibly as much as $1.6 billion a year if students took full advantage of the program. The state education budget is currently $4.9 billion.