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Public school threat vetoed;Briefing

United States

THE debate over education has heated up as Republicans taunted President Clinton with legislation that would pay for poor children in the nation's capital to go toprivate or parochial schools at government expense, and two wealthy businessmen put up$100 million (pound;62m) for the same purpose.

The president vetoed the bill, as had been expected. But while the measure was limited to the capital district of Washington, DC - which Congress nominally governs and whose low-rated public schools it underwrites - it was the first skirmish in a political battle with broad national ramifications.

Republicans want parents to be able to choose private or parochial schools using government vouchers. Because the money would be taken from the public schools, they say, those schools would be forced to improve and compete to survive.

Democrats, including Mr Clinton, say this would destroy public education. "We must strengthen our public schools, not abandon them," he said.

But the proposal is popular with many voters and, by forcing a veto during a congressional election year, the opposition party hopes to use the voucher debate as a campaign issue - partly to demonstrate that the Democrats are under the control of thepowerful teachers' union. To sweeten the idea, Republicans have labelled the vouchers "opportunity scholarships".

The $100m private fund to send poor kids to private school was set up by Theodore J Forstmann, head of the investment company Forstmann Little amp; Co, and John Walton, heir to the Wal-Mart department store chain. Hollywood mogul Michael Ovitz and other millionaires also havecontributed.

Public schools are like monopolies, Mr Forstmann said. "And monopolies don't work very well. They produce bad products at high prices. Education isn't any different in this regard."

The money will be given to low-income children in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington and Jersey City, New Jersey.

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