Bush and Kennedy Bills Set Stage for Federal Debate
Washington--The Bush Administration last week sent its eagerly awaited education legislation to Capitol Hill and a key senator introduced several education bills of his own, setting the stage for a debate on the federal role in education reform.
The Administration's bill contains the legislative framework needed to implement much of its America 2000 education-reform strategy, and it answers many of the questions raised by observers about how the programs would work.
The bill would support the development of innovative schools, reward districts that establish educational-choice programs, and require Chapter 1 funds to follow children who change schools under such a program. The measure would also create a regulation-waiver system, expand the National Assessment of Educational Progress, charter a commission to study questions related to the length of the school day and year, and create state training academies for educators.
Significantly, the bill was introduced by Senate education leaders from both parties: Democratic Senators Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, chairmen of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee and its education subcommittee, respectively; and Senators Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Nancy L. Kassebaum of Kansas, the ranking Republicans on those panels.
"I have reservations about some parts of it, especially the plans to turn the Chapter 1 program into a voucher and the creation of a choice program that includes private schools," Mr. Kennedy said.
However, he said, "we need to put partisan differences aside and get on with the business of improving our schools."
Mr. Kennedy also introduced several bills of his own. They would create several aid programs for urban and rural schools, a program that uses early-intervention strategies and scholarships to urge disadvantaged students to complete their education, a demonstration program to encourage the provision of coordinated social services to at-risk students and families, and a program to fund public-school choice plans.
The Senator had already introduced a teacher-training bill with Mr. Pell and a plan to make Head Start an entitlement program, and he has won committee approval for S 2, which would "codify" the national education goals adopted last year by the Administration and the National Governors' Association and commit the federal government to unspecified increases in education spending.
That bill also includes a package of literacy programs; grants to encourage school-based management; extensions of existing programs; and provisions, strongly opposed by the Administration, to replace or alter the goals-monitoring panel created by the Administration and the n.g.a., forming a more independent panel dominated by educators.
Mr. Kennedy said he also plans to introduce a bill to support programs that ease youths' transition from school to work.
On a Fast Track
The Senator said he hopes to win committee approval of elements that have strong bipartisan support before the Congress's Independence Day recess in July, and then turn to more contentious subjects in the fall.
"I'd call that a fast track for sure," one Republican Senate aide said,4adding, "In theory, it's possible."
House members have responded more cautiously. The Bush bill was introduced by Representative Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Education and Labor Committee and its precollegiate-education subcommittee, and the chairmen of those panels--William D. Ford and Dale E. Kildee, both Democrats from Michigan--have said they are willing to consider the Administration proposals.
But aides say the chairmen are privately unenthusiastic about moving a comprehensive education bill this year. Mr. Ford had planned to concentrate on reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, and aides say panel members are not eager to try again after last year's last-minute defeat of an omnibus bill.
An aide to Mr. Ford said he plans to hold hearings but will not immediately support either the Bush bill or Mr. Kennedy's proposals.
Representatives of the education community, most of whom had not seen the legislation last week, generally praised Mr. Kennedy's proposals in concept, and repeated their criticism of Mr. Bush's failure to address the need for early-childhood education and for more financial support.
"Politically, the Administration shows the options that will cost the least amount of money," said Nicholas J. Penning, director of legislation for the American Association of School Administrators.
Education advocates also reiterated their opposition to the Administration's choice proposals, particularly the idea of altering Chapter 1.
Advocates and Congressional aides from both parties unanimously agreed that choice would be the most contentious issue, and observers agreed that the Congress is unlikely to approve a choice program that funnels money to private schools.
The Bush bill would reward districts in which "parents select the school, including private schools, in which their children will be enrolled," and "sufficient financial support is provided to enable a significant number or percentage of parents to enroll their children in a variety of schools and educational programs, including private schools."
Districts' share of the available funds would be based on their Chapter 1 allocations, and the money could be used to support any new educational services. A separate, competitive grant program would support model choice initiatives.
It is unclear whether a district could exclude some, or even most, private schools or whether it could exclude religious schools and still qualify. It is also unclear whether participating private schools would have to accept some of the regulatory restrictions that constrain public schools--whether, for example, they could maintain entrance requirements that exclude certain students.
Mr. Kennedy's choice bill would apply only to public schools. State agencies and school districts would be eligible for the competitive grants, which would be used specifically to design and implement choice plans.
States and districts would have to ensure that the plans did not "impede the progress of desegregation," and that school-assignment policies did not discriminate against poor, handicapped, or educationally disadvantaged students. The bill would also mandate free transportation, parent counseling, procedures to improve unpopular schools, and a "fair and equitable" process for assigning slots in popular schools.
Chapter 1 Vouchers Revived
The Bush bill would require districts with choice plans to provide remedial services to all children who would be eligible for them in the absence of the choice plan, and allows, but does not require, them to do this by giving parents vouchers with which to buy remedial services.
This means that a child who attends a Chapter 1 school and qualifies for the program based on his low achievement level must still receive services if he chooses to attend a school without a Chapter 1 program. The bill does not explain how a district that already has a choice plan--and bases Chapter 1 eligibility on school assignment under that plan--would determine who would have been eligible without it.
Another major sticking point is expected to be the cost of the bill that emerges from the Congress. The Administration's entire package would cost about $600 million; the tab for proposals favored by many lawmakers would dwarf that figure.
Full funding for Head Start, for example, would cost about $7.6 billion per year, $5.6 billion more than it received this year. The potential price tag for S 2 alone is $472 million.
The urban/rural schools bill--originated by the Council of the Great City Schools--specifies no funding levels, but would likely be costly, as would the Democrats' teacher bill.
It would provide, among other provisions, school-improvement grants based on the Chapter 1 formula, rewards to improving schools, and funds to repair and construct schools.
Observers also agreed that testing issues are likely to prove contentious. The Administration proposes expanding naep to mandate regular assessments in each of the "five core subjects" of English, math, history, science, and geography and requiring collection of state-by-state data for states that wish to participate.
The bill does not address the huge cost of such an expansion, but would require states interested in state4level data to put up $100,000 and help administer the tests.
The Administration also plans to develop national achievement standards and national tests, activities it claims do not need Congressional approval. Lawmakers disagree, however, and these controversial issues are certain to surface either in debate on an omnibus education bill or as part of the reauthorization of education research programs.
'New American Schools'
The Administration's proposal to back the creation of "new American schools" was praised by some lawmakers and aides, while others said they need to study it further.
The bill explains the proposed operation of the program, under which communities could get as much as $1 million to start an innovative school.
The bill defines a "community" as a geographical entity such as a town, school district, or neighborhood; or "an identifiable group of individuals, such as the members of a service organization, who generally reside in a particular geographic area."
Interested groups would be designated "America 2000" communities by governors, based on their own criteria, which must include adoption of the national education goals. Each governor would then nominate communities to receive start-up funds.
Using criteria set by an "expert panel," the Secretary of Education would choose the award recipients.
The least controversial proposals under consideration are probably the popular literacy programs, which have been approved several times by both houses of the Congress; Mr. Bush's "merit schools" and alternative-certification programs, which were also included in last year's ill-fated omnibus bill; and the Bush proposal for state training academies, which bears some resemblance to a program in the teacher-training package advanced by Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Pell.
Vol. 10, Issue 36, Page 1