Education Issues Rank High On 101st Congress's Agenda
Washington--On the agenda this year for the 101st Congress are reauthorizations for the federal programs supporting vocational education, handicapped students, and school meals. Proposals to curb student-loan defaults, create a national youth-service program, and improve teacher education are also on the agenda, Congressional aides said last week.
In addition, President-elect George Bush comes to his new job bearing a load of education proposals he made during the campaign.
But the first education-related issue to be considered by the new Congress is likely to be child care, which was hotly debated and then dropped in the waning hours of the last session.
Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, last week introduced a brand-new proposal that includes a new school-based program. Aides to the California Democrat said child care is his top priority.
An aide to Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, said he is also eager to revisit the child-care issue, and has tentatively scheduled a hearing for Jan. 24.
Mr. Dodd, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Children, Youth, and Families, was the primary sponsor of the "act for better child care services," the bill that was debated last year. It would have provided $2.5 billion to subsidize child care for low- and middle-income families, expand the supply of providers, and mandate health and safety standards.
His aide said Mr. Dodd would reintroduce the version of the bill that died last year amid debate.
Mr. Hawkins drafted his new proposal in an effort to rebuild the coalition of child-advocacy, civil-rights, health, religious, and education organizations that had initially supported the "abc" bill, according to John F. Jennings, counsel to the Education and Labor Committee.
The bill's provisions for providing aid to church-based day-care centers caused several education groups to withdraw their support.
They argued that day-care vouchers could open the door to a voucher program that could undermine the public schools. And they said the bill did not adequately safeguard against religious indoctrination in federally funded programs.
Mr. Hawkins's bill aims to defuse the church-state issue by limiting its voucher component, which is similar to the abc bill's, to infants and toddlers. A second component would expand eligibility and funding for Head Start.
The third segment would create a new program supporting school-based child care, including early-childhood programs for 4-year-olds and before- and after-school care for older children. Families with poverty-level incomes would pay nothing, while slightly wealthier families would pay on a sliding scale.
Aides said parental-leave legislation, which was attached to the abc bill as a last-minute legislative strategy in 1988, would also be reintroduced, but would be moved after the child-care bills.
Several education groups supported the parental-leave bill, which would have granted parents up to 10 weeks of unpaid leave over two years to care for newborn, adopted, or ill children and up to 10 weeks a year for their own illnesses. But other groups, most notably the National School Boards Association, joined business organizations in opposing the measure.
The House appears likely to take the lead on two of the three pending reauthorizations. The Education and Labor Committee has tentatively planned hearings in late February on child-nutrition programs and in March on vocational education.
The most significant issue in the vocational-education reauthorization, according to Mr. Jennings, is likely to be how to keep vocational programs, which are suffering from enrollment declines, alive in a re4form movement that has increased academic requirements to the point that most students do not have time for vocational courses.
"We will probably take a look at whether vocational courses should continue to concentrate on occupation-specific skills, or if we should encourage the integration of more basic reading, math, and science skills," he said.
In addition, aides said, legislators will look at the relationship between secondary and postsecondary vocational programs. Some education groups, particularly those representing community colleges, will urge that more funds be directed to the postsecondary level.
Other proposals are likely to address ways to encourage better coordination between secondary and postsecondary vocational education through programs such as the so-called "2+2" plan, under which a student can enter a vocational program in the junior year of high school and continue studies at a local community college.
There will also be debate over the strict mandates in the act on how the funds may be spent, aides said.
Currently, the law requires that specific percentages of the funds be set aside for programs that are targeted to such groups as handicapped individuals, disadvantaged students, adults needing retraining, and single parents. Many vocational educators and administrators will argue for more flexibility in spending.
Debate on the school-lunch program is likely to focus on whether nutritional guidelines should be more restrictive, Mr. Jennings said, predicting that the Agriculture Department would oppose tighter requirements that could cut down on the amount of excess commodities used.
He also said lawmakers are waiting to see if the Bush Administration will continue the Reagan Administration's push to eliminate the component of the lunch program that funds basic operating costs by subsidizing a portion of the cost of lunches for wealthier students.
"The problem is that without that subsidy, schools drop out of the program," Mr. Jennings said.
An aide to Senator Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Handicapped, said the Iowa Democrat plans to begin reauthorization hearings in late February.
Neither the basic state grant program for handicapped students nor the preschool program added in 1986 expires until 1991. It is the smaller, specialized programs, such as personnel training, aid for deaf-blind students, and aid for severely handicapped students, that will be reauthorized this year.
Because the Congress made significant changes in the smaller programs in 1983 and 1986, no major changes are likely this time, said Robert Silverstein, staff director of Mr. Harkin's subcommittee.
But Pat Laird, an aide to Representative Major Owens, Democrat of New York, said the Select Education Subcommittee he chairs would probably study ways to use the personnel-training program to push more students into special-education careers.
Another likely topic of debate, she said, is whether special-education research is focusing on the right areas. She said Mr. Owens plans to hold hearings in late spring.
Aides to Senator Claiborne Pell, chairman of the Senate education subcommittee, said the Rhode Island Democrat had not yet scheduled reauthorization hearings. The panel will turn first to the issue of student-loan defaults, they said.
Mr. Pell plans to reintroduce a measure, passed by the Senate last year, that would require institutions with high default rates to develop default-management plans, said David Evans, staff director of the subcommittee.
Education leaders in the House decided to let the measure die last year, preferring to work with the Education Department on a regulatory solution. In exchange, the department withdrew its controversial proposed regulations, which would have eliminated institutions with high default rates from loan programs.
Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos has promised to work with the Congress and the higher-education community to forge a consensus on how to attack the problem.
Mr. Pell also plans to revive a proposal allowing young people to earn education benefits by performing public service, Mr. Evans said.
His is one of many youth-service plans introduced in the last Congress. The proposals ranged from mandating universal service to aid for existing community programs.
Senator Sam Nunn, Democrat of Georgia, has said he will introduce legislation, based on a report by the Democratic Leadership Council, that would require civilian or military service as a prerequisite for receiving student aid.
Education advocates prefer Mr. Pell's proposal, which would augment, not replace, existing programs.
Mr. Evans said another Senate priority will be a new teacher-education initiative being drafted in cooperation with the education community.
The proposal is to address both training of teachers already in the field and incentives to attract able students, especially minority students, to the profession.
Bill R. Phillips, staff director for Mr. Cavazos, said vocational education is a high priority of the Secretary. He will probably submit his own reauthorization proposal in coming months, Mr. Phillips said.
The Secretary's other legislative priority will be helping to breathe life into some of the education proposals Mr. Bush made during his campaign, Mr. Phillips said.
"We have discussed his initiatives with him and his people, and we will be working on it," he said, adding that the first step will be to determine if Mr. Bush's goals can be accomplished within existing programs.
"We want to make sure we don't come up with a lot of demands for new money, when maybe we already have it and just need to get the priorities straightened out," Mr. Phillips said.
Besides promising increased funding for existing programs, such as Head Start, magnet schools, Chapter 1, and the National Assessment for Educational Progress, Mr. Bush proposed a $500-million "merit schools'' program and new Presidential awards for excellent teachers.
Mr. Bush has also discussed creation of national teacher-evaluation models, establishing a $1,000 "children's tax credit," and improving the targeting of Chapter 1.