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Plans for Choice, Regulatory Relief Passed by House

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Washington--The House has approved a wide-ranging education bill that includes what would be the first direct federal grant program for open-enrollment experiments and a plan to free some school districts from many restrictions on the use of federal aid in exchange for "performance agreements."

The House accepted the open-enrollment and "deregulation" proposals unanimously July 20, as part of a block of amendments negotiated by the leadership of the Education and Labor Committee. Subsequently, it passed the omnibus bill, HR 5115, by a vote of 350 to 25.

The bulk of the bill consists of a compromise plan introduced in late June by the committee leadership, ending an unusual partisan squabble over education initiatives proposed by President Bush. (See Education Week, June 20, 1990.)

The committee compromise, which is structured around education goals approved by Mr. Bush and the National Governors' Association in February, included modified versions of such Bush initiatives as "merit schools," awards for outstanding teachers, and grants for alternative-certification programs.

In addition, it contained Democratic proposals for new teacher-training and literacy programs, a grant program for research on innovative testing methods, and calls for increased funding for many existing programs.

As the bill headed to the House floor, nine lawmakers submitted amendments, including the deregulation and open-enrollment proposals and a gop substitute that would have sliced the bill's funding levels.

Seeking bargaining chips for negotiations over the controversial amendments, Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, the California Democrat who is chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, came up with a few strategic amendments of his own.

One would have forced the Education Department to use a procedure known as "negotiated rulemaking" in preparing all its regulations--anathema to agency officials--while another would have barred the Office of Management and Budget from reviewing any E.D. study mandated by law.

A third amendment would have attached to the open-enrollment program--sponsored by Representative Steve Bartlett, Republican of Texas--a requirement that participating states' school-finance systems be certified by the Secretary of Education as having equalized spending among districts.

'Choice' Plan Watered Down

The hostile amendments were dropped after negotiations produced a significantly watered-down version of Mr. Bartlett's proposal. Also approved as part of the deal was a provision backed by Representative Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the Republican Whip, to require states to have literacy programs for convicts as a condition of receiving certain adult-education funds.

Mr. Bartlett's original proposal called for a grant program for states and districts wishing to experiment with parental-choice programs. It also would have allowed Chapter 1 funds to follow disadvantaged students who switched schools under a choice or desegregation plan, and enabled military dependents and other children attending Defense Department schools overseas to enroll in private schools at government expense.

The compromise version would create a relatively modest program, authorized at $40 million the first year, under which states and school districts could apply for grants to fund the planning--but not implementation--of initiatives involving choice, finance equity, or increasing the involvement of parents, businesses, or communities in education. Initiatives aimed at helping disadvantaged students would receive priority for funding.

Deregulation Demonstration

Mr. Hawkins also hammered out a separate compromise with Representative Peter P. Smith, Republican of Vermont, who had pushed the performance-agreement proposal all session. The version approved by the House authorizes a demonstration program for 50 school districts chosen by the Secretary of Education.

Mr. Hawkins's position on the idea of regulatory relief had wavered for a year between expressions of opposition to the Smith plan and of a willingness to consider an altered version. His primary objection, he said, was that districts would be allowed to ignore disadvantaged pupils, the target of many federal education programs, and spend their money elsewhere. (See Education Week, Nov. 22, 1989.)

Mr. Smith's original bill would have allowed participating districts to propose innovative plans for the use of virtually all their precollegiate-education funds, allowing them to mingle money from several programs and to be freed from many other restrictions.

Mr. Smith said, however, that strong opposition from the special-education community had led him to decide some time ago to drop special education programs from the bill.

The version approved by the House further shortens the list of eligible programs and allows the innovative use of federal funds only for two purposes--programs for disadvantaged children receiving Chapter 1 services, and training programs for high-school vocational-education students.

Also in the compromise is a Hawkins proposal mandating a study of the impact of state and federal regulations on schools in each state.

"We tried to find a kernel of agreement in Mr. Smith's proposal," said an aide to Mr. Hawkins, noting that the compromise was actually likely to enhance school districts' focus on disadvantaged children.

The changes approved by the House brought a mixed reaction from a prominent advocate of performance agreements.

"What has been proposed here is such a radical departure from the way education policy has been made for many years, it is hardly surprising that it is more narrow than some of us would have hoped," said Marc S. Tucker, executive director of the National Foundation on Education and the Economy.

"Nevertheless, I think this ought to make a big difference," he said. "For urban and rural districts with large concentrations of poor kids, [the additional restrictions] aren't going to change the effect of the bill very much."

In its first major report, issued in March 1989, Mr. Tucker's group put forward the idea of freeing schools from federal regulations in exchange for performance standards. Soon after, President Bush endorsed the concept.

The Hawkins amendment also includes language requiring the Education Department to fund developmental bilingual-education programs. In response to charges that the Bush Administration is trying to limit the independence of the department's administrative-law judges, the measure also contains a provision specifying that the judges can enforce subpoenas against the department. (See Education Week, June 6, 1990.)

Other Amendments

Other amendments approved by voice vote in the House would:

Authorize $10 million for the National Writing Project, which provides teacher training.

Authorize $35 million to support foreign-language institutes for teachers and curriculum-development efforts.

Allow college work-study funds to be used to pay students to act as "mentors" for disadvantaged youths who are potential dropouts.

Replace the science scholarships in the bill with two new scholarship programs, administered jointly by the Education Department and National Science Foundation, for prospective scientists and science teachers.

By a vote of 315 to 59, the House approved an amendment by Representative Gerald B.H. Solomon, Republican of New York, to bar students convicted of drug offenses from getting student aid until they had completed a rehabilitation program.

Several Senate Bills

HR 5115 will be considered in a conference committee along with several Senate-passed bills. Senators are expected to agree to a conference soon after they complete work on S 1675, a teacher-training initiative that is broader in scope than the House provisions. (See Education Week, June 20, 1990.)

The Senate has already approved S 695, a modified version of President Bush's proposals that also includes funding for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and provisions aimed at reducing student-loan defaults, and S 1310, a literacy package similar to the House provisions.

The issue of federal funding for the standards board is expected to be a one contentious during conference action. The provision was challenged on the Senate floor, and members of the House Education and Labor Committee are so divided on the issue that supporters agreed not to raise it during consideration of HR 5115, instead promising to resolve the question in conference.

House members are also expected to oppose inclusion of the default provisions in the final version of the bill. A default package presented by Representative Marge Roukema, Republican of New Jersey, was the only amendment to HR 5115 defeated on the House floor. It lost on a 264-to-122 vote, after committee leaders argued that such provisions should be considered when the Higher Education Act is reauthorized next year.

Sharp disagreement also exists on a Bush proposal to fund magnet-school programs launched for reasons other than desegregation. Mr. Hawkins and other House Democrats, who are strongly opposed to that idea, made sure it was not in the House bill. But S 695 would allow funding of the program if two other magnet-school programs are first fully funded.

The House's completed handiwork, meanwhile, evoked muted praise from education lobbyists, who expressed concern that it would steal scarce funds from existing programs.

Administration officials, on the other hand, criticized the bill both for being too expensive and for tying strings to the President's proposals.

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