Lobbyists, Aides Say 98th Congress Reasserted Federal Education Role
Washington--There are those who view the 98th Congress, which adjourned a week later than scheduled and failed to complete action on a number of major initiatives, as a most contentious and unproductive body.
But Congressional aides and education lobbyists say that they are generally pleased with the legislative accomplishments in education this year.
Not only did the Congress finish its most pressing education business--reauthorizing several key programs in its final days--but, observers say, it was able to fashion consensus bills that in effect reasserted a federal role in education.
Even so, the fate of those key last-minute bills remained in doubt at the end of last week. As of early Friday, President Reagan had not signed into law either an omnibus education bill or the reauthorization for Head Start programs, which also contained authorizations for $200 million in new education measures.
A number of other education and school-related measures simply languished on Capitol Hill and will have to be reintroduced next year.
These include the civil-rights act of 1984, which would apply civil-rights laws to entire institutions receiving federal aid, not just to specific programs; a $9-billion education-improvement bill known as the American defense education act; a computer-literacy bill authorizing $15 million in venture capital for the development of educational software; a multibillion-dollar bill authorizing basic-skills improvement grants to secondary schools with at least 20-percent minority enrollment; and an omnibus reauthorization of child-nutrition programs.
But the prospects for reintroduced education bills next session will be affected by the major reshuffling of leadership posts that is in store for the House Education and Labor Committee as a result of the death last summer of its chairman, Carl D. Perkins, Democrat of Kentucky, and the impending retirement of the panel's ranking Republican, John N. Erlenborn of Illinois.
In this election year, the education issue regained its "bipartisan footing," one lobbyist said.
Moreover, said the lobbyist, "Everybody [in the Congress] has at least one school in their district. You can't underestimate election-year pressure on education."
The Congress passed a record appropriation of $17.6 billion for the Education Department for the current fiscal year; even the Administration's proposal of $15.5 billion would have amounted to the department's highest appropriation ever.
Lawmakers also seemed to think "that it was time to put back more resources" into education after perhaps "going too far" in cutting the budget and diminishing the federal role, a Democratic Senate aide said.
Advocates of tuition tax credits and organized prayer in public schools, meanwhile, again tried to advance their agenda, hoping that election-year pressures would improve their chances. A school-prayer amendment to the omnibus bill, however, was dropped before its final consideration. And tuition tax-credit legislation remained stalled.
But the Congress did pass "equal-access" legislation guaranteeing the right of religious groups to meet in schools before or after instructional hours. The bill was backed both by conservative religious organizations and by many liberal groups, which argued that the law guarantees free speech for student political groups.
In a series of background conversations last week, Congressional sources seemed to agree that political factors influenced much of the Congressional action in education this year.
The education-reform movement provided a backdrop for the activity and grist for some of the rhetoric on Capitol Hill, but one lobbyist said, "I don't think reform had much to do with anything."
Added a Democratic House aide: "Not one piece of legislation even addresses what the priorities are in education." He said that a national summit conference on education--which the Congress authorized--was intended to examine fundamental issues, such as curriculum, data collection, and the quality of teachers. But the Congress, before adjourning, failed to appropriate funds for the meeting.
Senate aides praised as reform-inspired a bill intended to improve the quality of and increase the size of the mathematics and science teaching force. A Republican aide called it "a formidable and significant measure ... a brand-new program, not a rehash" of old ones.
But a Democratic House aide commented, "[the] math-science [bill] was not an education-reform bill but a teacher-shortage bill."
The law, which includes the equal-access legislation, authorizes $965 million over two years, providing block grants to states for teacher inservice and retraining programs; providing scholarships and forgivable loans to prospective teachers; establishing summer workshops for teachers; creating a program of matching grants to states and local school districts for cooperative programs with businesses; and providing grants to postsecondary institutions for research projects and teacher training.
The law authorized $200 million for these math-science projects for fiscal 1985, but the Congress, bowing to fiscal constraints, appropriated only $100 million. This "was a political choice, not a program choice," said one lobbyist, noting that the $100 million, once divided among all the programs and localities, will have little impact.
Another lobbyist likened the 98th session of Congress to a professional basketball game, in which most of the action occurs near the end. ''You didn't miss much if you only caught the last two minutes," he said.
A Democratic aide said bills started to move only when lawmakers realized that "if they didn't finish this year, next year would have just been a morass," with the Higher Education Act due for reauthorization. "It is impossible to try to move legislation in the first year of a new Administration."
Sources also said that lengthy private negotiations over the bills delayed their progress.
Days before the scheduled Oct. 5 adjournment, a House-Senate conference committee broke a logjam on two major pieces of legislation: a five-year reauthorization of vocational-education programs and the omnibus bill--the Education Amendments of 1984. The omnibus bill, S 2496, reauthorizes impact aid, the National Center for Education Statistics, and programs in women's equity, adult, bilingual, migrant and Indian education. (See Education Week, Oct. 10, 1984.)
During those final days before adjournment, lawmakers also approved the record $17.6 billion for the Education Department, and the House gave final approval to the Head Start bill, which carried additional authorizations for a $6 million educational-research center at Indiana University; a $96-million fund to encourage top students to become teachers; a $24-million program of federal merit scholarships; and a $100-million fund to train school administrators. (See Education Week, Oct. 17, 1984.)
Satisfied With Results
While House aides often blamed the Senate for procedural delays and vice versa, staff members from both chambers expressed satisfaction with the substance of the legislation.
The aides and lobbyists who were interviewed seemed particularly pleased with the new vocational-education reauthorization. Under the bill, 57 percent of the states' basic-grant funds must go to so-called underserved populations--the disadvantaged, the handicapped, adults in need of retraining, single parents and homemakers, sex-equity programs, and the incarcerated. The other 43 percent must be used to improve existing vocational programs.
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U.S. Education Role Said Affirmed
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A Republican Senate aide called the quality of the new bill a "quantum leap" over that of the old statute. And a lobbyist said that the legislation contains a "careful delineation of the federal role" but makes clear that "there actually is a federal role" in the program.
There were more than 250 differences between the House and Senate versions of the vocational-education reauthorization, but most were settled privately, aides said.
Similarly, House and Senate conferees put aside some deep differences in fashioning the final version of the omnibus bill. The Senate had originally passed only the adult-education reauthorization, which was strongly supported by the Administration, sources said.
The Administration carefully picked its spots when lobbying on education legislation this year, Congressional aides said.
For example, Administration representatives were unaccountably silent in the debate over the vocational-education reauthorization, a Democratic aide noted. But they lobbied successfully against provisions to change Education Department auditing procedures. The proposed change would have placed the burden of proving wrongdoing by a recipient of federal funds on department auditors; now, if the auditors find evidence of wrongdoing, the recipient must prove that funds were not misspent.
With the unexpected death of Representative Perkins, Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, a veteran Democrat from California, stepped into the chairmanship of the House education committee and, aides said, acquitted himself well in the press of the final days.
While his colleagues memorialized Representative Perkins by naming two measures for him, observers were already speculating that the committee would look and act quite differently next session, when Representative Hawkins, a low-key legislator, establishes himself as chairman and other members jockey for subcommittee chairmanships.