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Voucher scheme could go

As the United States presidential race reaches its climax, Stephen Phillips reports on implications for education policy

Shirrel Simmons wanted the best schooling for her daughter. She shopped around Washington DC's public education system, sampling several. But teachers were complacent and did not have high expectations, she complains.

Kennedy, eight, was beaten up at one school and hospitalised.

So when US lawmakers approved a Bush initiative to offer low-income Washington families public grants to send their children to private schools, Ms Simmons applied. The five-year $14 million (pound;7.5m) voucher pilot complements schemes in Ohio and Florida but represents the first government-sponsored effort, a test case from which the White House hopes to rally support for a national rollout.

Ms Simmons qualified for the means-tested scheme and Kennedy was accepted at Rock Creek international school in Washington's upscale embassy district. There is a teacher for every seven pupils and lessons are taught in Arabic, French, Spanish and English.

Last month Kennedy and 28 other voucher-recipients mingled with their new classmates at a reception at the Venezuelan embassy, courtesy of the ambassador, whose son attends Rock Creek. A shuttle bus ferries Kennedy the 20-mile daily round-trip to and from school.

"I can't remember when Kennedy last came home from school happy before Rock Creek. Now she's excited about learning," says Ms Simmons.

But despite glowing testimonies, vouchers are deeply contentious. This is Bush's pet project, and John Kerry has vowed to veto any voucher bill if elected president.

Critics complain that vouchers siphon money from public education into the private sector and that many participating schools are religious, breaching separation of church and state. Roughly 70 per cent of participating Washington schools are parochial.

Charter schools already offer educational choice, while vouchers favour proactive parents and students at the expense of those who need help most, opponents add. But for Ms Simmons vouchers offered a lifeline. "I wanted to give my child the best education," she says.

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