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School Boards Withdraw Objections to Leave Bill

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Washington--The only major education group to oppose a bill mandating unpaid leave for child care and family illness withdrew its objections last week after a House panel added amendments aimed at softening the bill's impact on schools.

The House Education and Labor Committee approved the "family and medical leave act" by a vote of 23 to 12. Marge Roukema of New Jersey was the only Republican member of the committee to back the measure.

Ms. Roukema was the sponsor of amendments, adopted without opposition, that would allow school districts to set some conditions on leave taken by their employees.

The changes reflected concerns raised by the National School Boards Association, which had joined major business groups in opposing a similar bill in the previous session of the Congress.

Thomas A. Shannon, executive director of the n.s.b.a., stopped short last week of endorsing the measure, saying the group "does not support federal labor mandates."

But in a letter to Representative Augustus F. Hawkins of California, chairman of the committee, Mr. Shannon said that "the enactment of this legislation, incorporating the full package of amendments, removes the operational objections which we have raised."

As approved, the bill would grant workers in firms with more than 50 employees up to 10 weeks of unpaid leave every two years to care for newborn, adopted, or sick children or parents, and 15 weeks a year for their own illnesses.

The bill is not expected to reach the House floor until this summer.

Minimize Disruptions

The school-board group's main objection to the legislation was that it would disturb policies crafted to minimize educational disruptions.

The amendments offered by Ms. Roukema sought to reduce the chances for problems by giving districts discretion to:

Require employees who take leave for child or parental care in the latter part of an academic term to extend their leave to the end of the term, rather than return to the classroom for just the final few weeks.

Give employees who plan to take extensive leave for medical treatment the option to take the leave for a "particular duration" or to be temporarily transferred to an equivalent position that "better accommodates recurring periods of leave."

Follow existing school-board policies and collective-bargaining agreements in determining what constitutes an "equivalent employment position" in reinstating a worker who returns from leave. The provision would allow districts to reassign teachers to other classrooms or grade levels if their current policies permit.

The refinements "in essence recognized the unique nature of the school calendar," said Michael A. Resnick, associate executive director of the nsba

Unions on Board

The amendments proved acceptable to both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

"While the n.e.a. strongly believes that education employees must remain fully covered under this act," said Kenneth F. Melley, the union's government-relations director, the modifications strike "an acceptable balance between the protection of employees' rights to job-protected unpaid leave and limited flexibility for local school boards."

Another committee-backed amendment affecting school systems would allow employers to follow a more stringent standard than the bill requires in determining if an employee is fit to return to work.

The committee also cleared an amendment, offered by Mr. Hawkins, to extend coverage to Congressional employees.

However, the panel defeated more than two dozen amendments offered by Republican members to ease restrictions on employers.

Rejected were proposals to in8crease the number of employees in a firm and the number of hours of employee service needed to trigger the bill's requirements, as well as to relax penalties for violations.

A proposal to exempt all public employers from the bill--a concept initially supported by the n.s.b.a.--was also defeated.

Day-Care Debate

The day-long markup session and a child-care hearing held by the panel earlier in the week set the stage for what could be another year of contentious debate on family issues.

Supporters of the leave measure characterized it as a "modest" relief effort for families in which both parents are working out of economic necessity. But critics charged that it could invite unwarranted federal "intrusion" in the workplace.

In testimony at a hearing to consider several child-care proposals introduced this year, educators and representatives of the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Head Start Association backed increased federal support for early-childhood programs in a variety of settings.

However, witnesses and committee members made clear that some of the issues that had bogged down day-care legislation in the last Congress had not gone away. Representative Pat Williams, Democrat of Montana, argued strongly, for example, against allowing federal funds to go to early-childhood-education programs in religious institutions.

Representative Don Edwards, Democrat of California, told committee members about his bill to channel child-care aid only to public schools--and thus avoid "the church-state problem that has been such a thorn in our sides."

'Lightning and Fireworks'

Other witnesses questioned the need for federal child-care standards. Representative Steve Gunderson, Republican of Wisconsin, and Michael Schwartz, a social-policy analyst for the Free Congress Foundation, contended that state regulation is adequate to safeguard day care.

Although the Bush Administration has highlighted the need to address children's issues, panel members at the family-leave mark-up voiced frustration over continuing conservative opposition to federal proposals to ease the child-care burden on working parents.

"We talk grandiosely about the need to support families and wring our hands over the decline in family values," Ms. Roukema said. "Yet when there comes a small but substantial modicum of help, it seems to engender lightning and all kinds of fireworks."

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