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House Education Bills: Partisan Volleying Continues

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Washington--An unusual partisan battle in the House Education and Labor Committee escalated last week, as the panel's Democrats and Republicans and Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos traded barbs at a hearing on President Bush's education bill and the Democrats' alternative.

The rhetorical brawl--much of which focused on which side is most guilty of partisanship--ended when Mr. Cavazos left to keep another appointment and the Republicans stood as a group and walked out.

Representative Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, the committee's ranking Republican, said that if the Democrats "want help from this side to put something together, we'll be there."

Democratic Representatives Augustus F. Hawkins of California, the panel's chairman, and William D. Ford of Michigan, who is expected to succeed Mr. Hawkins when he retires at the end of the session, also expressed a willingness to cooperate.

But the animosity was palpable to observers, and the future of the legislation is unclear.

The Democrats can seek a compromise or push their bill through the committee on party-line votes. That could lead to the House's first partisan floor fight on education issues in many years, and complicate the subsequent House-Senate conference.

The Senate approved an amended version of the President's bill, S 695, on Feb. 7. While it contains Democratic amendments and additions, it is closer to the original proposal than the House Democrats' alternative, HR 4379.

The Senate has also passed a literacy bill similar to the literacy provisions in HR 4379, but has not yet acted on teacher training and mathematics and science education, which are also addressed in the omnibus House bill. House aides acknowledged that senators might not want an omnibus approach.

Republican aides said g.o.p. members would probably be willing to negotiate, but stressed that the ball was now in the Democrats' court.

Democratic aides disagreed, noting that it was the Republicans who walked out. They said there has been no discussion of how to proceed, and nothing is likely to happen soon, as the House began a two-week recess last week, and panel members are likely to be tied up in conferences on child care and vocational education.

The rift opened March 7, when Democrats moved to postpone action on the President's bill, HR 1675, which was to be marked up by the Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education.

Mr. Goodling and Mr. Hawkins had worked out amendments to the Bush plan. But other Democrats objected during a caucus that delayed the markup by 45 minutes, then voted for postponement. On March 26, Mr. Hawkins introduced HR 4379, which includes some of Mr. Bush's proposals and several Democratic proposals already pending before the committee.

It would authorize $2 billion in 1991 for new programs and calls for dramatic increases in spending on existing programs.

"Not much focus, not very comprehensive, not much for excellence," Mr. Goodling said at last week's subcommittee hearing.

"The pride of authorship" and Mr. Bush's popularity, he said, "causes us to do all sorts of silly things."

Mr. Cavazos called HR 4379 "unrealistically expensive" and "a ploy to sidetrack the President's bill," and said it was not a "comprehensive response" to the national education goals adopted by the President and the National Governors' Association, as the Democrats claim.

Some of the new proposals have merit, but need further discussion, he said. He complained about how the Bush proposals were trimmed, contending that spending levels for some of them were reduced "for no apparent reason except partisanship."

"Some people just have a difficult time giving the President any credit for the efforts and leadership he has taken in improving and restructuring our nation's schools," Mr. Cavazos said.

Mr. Hawkins said he and other Democrats were motivated not by partisanship, but by concern that the Bush proposals--which include a "Merit Schools" program, scholarships for high achievers, and awards for outstanding teachers--would reward "elite" schools but shortchange disadvantaged students.

Mr. Ford ridiculed provisions in the Bush bill that would authorize funding for awards ceremonies, and argued that a proposal to fund alternative-certification programs encouraged the hiring of unqualified teachers.

"I've never heard anyone use the word 'partisan' so many times in a presentation," Mr. Ford said, including former Secretary William J. Bennett, who "set the standard for irritating members of this committee."

"To suggest that after many years of working together this committee has lost that because we don't agree with your rhetoric is a disservice to your office, the President, and the children of this country," he said.

Mr. Cavazos countered that he was "not advocating putting people who are not qualified in the classroom," and was "not trying to be partisan."

"I've been publicly criticized, criticized by the press, because I've been too bipartisan," the Secretary said, throwing up his hands.

When the merits of the two bills were finally discussed, a panel of educators were almost unanimous in favoring the Democrats' plan, applauding both the proposed increases for proven programs and the new proposals, most of which had already been endorsed by education groups.

Lawrence C. Patrick Jr., the Republican president of the Detroit Board of Education, touted the Bush bill and said he was not familiar with HR 4379.

Some witnesses supported inclusion of provisions that would authorize funding for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and allow some school districts to receive waivers of some federal regulations as an experiment.

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