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Choice Is the Sticking Point as Senators Prepare To Act on Bush's America 2000

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After weeks of negotiations among themselves and with Bush Administration officials, senators are nearly ready to act on an omnibus education bill anchored by the President's America 2000 reform strategy.

The House majority leader, meanwhile, has proposed an alternative program that would reward states for student achievement.

And public-education groups are heaping criticism on the Administration plan, particularly its proposal to encourage parental-choice plans that include private schools.

Senate aides and Administration sources say the choice proposal—which would reward school districts for including private schools in such plans—is the most important sticking point in the negotiations.

Jeanne Allen, an education analyst at the Heritage Foundation, asserted in a news release late last month that the Administration was planning to "limit its choice program to public schools and to require federal monitoring of student-enrollment choices," or to accept a promise by senators to consider choice in later legislation.

"The education establishment would score a huge victory" if the Administration backed off from its plan, Ms. Allen wrote. "The losers will be America's schoolchildren."

In an interview this month, Secre4tary of Education Lamar Alexander denied that he had told lawmakers he would drop the choice plan as part of an overall deal.

Sources said the Administration has suggested trying a voucher experiment as a small demonstration program. But most of them predicted that lawmakers would decide instead to back a program aiding only public-school choice.

Goals Panel At Issue

Another sticking point between senators and the Administration is a proposal by Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, to change the composition of, or create a rival to, the National Education Goals Panel established by the Administration and the National Governors' Association.

The plan, which would create an independent panel dominated by educators, was included in S 2, a bill approved by the Labor and Human Resources Committee last spring. That bill also included sections "codifying" the goals set by the Administration and the n.g.a. and committing the government to unspecified increases in education spending.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the Labor and Human Resources Committee, also included in S 2 a program to encourage school-based management. That program, as well as Kennedy proposals to aid urban and rural schools, is expected to surface in the omnibus bill.

An Administration source said Mr. Kennedy agreed not to include in the bill a provision to make Head Start an entitlement program. Such a change was approved by the committee this month on a party-line vote. The Administration opposes the idea on budgetary grounds.

Senate aides said their bill may also include teacher-training programs supported by Mr. Kennedy and Senator Claiborne Pell, Democrat of Rhode Island and chairman of the Education, Arts, and Humanities Subcommittee.

Influential House members also back teacher-training initiatives, but would prefer to address the issue as part of the Higher Education Act.

It is unclear which route the Congress will take.

House Focused on H.E.A.

House members have not begun focusing closely on the Bush proposals, and are not expected to begin serious deliberations on them until after the August recess.

Representative William D. Ford, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Education and Labor Committee, is devoting his energies first to reauthorization of the HEA Neither he nor his fellow Michigan Democrat, Dale E. Kildee, who heads the Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education Subcommittee, have unveiled proposals of their own.

The ranking Republican on both the full committee and the subcommittee, Representative Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, has proposed a teacher-training bill. He has also added to the menu a proposal to allow schools to receive waivers of some regulations on the use of federal funds in exchange for agreements to meet performance goals.

Gephardt Plan

Another House proposal, dropped on the table last week by the majority leader, Richard A. Gephardt, would reward states for each child who arrived at school ready to learn, and for later student achievement as well.

Under the Missouri Democrat's plan, states would receive grants ranging from $500 to $2,000 for each 1st grader who had received health care, immunizations, nutritional screening, and preschool education. Only children from families earning less than $50,000 would qualify, and the grants would be larger for lower-income children.

States would also receive $2,500 to $5,000 for each high-school senior who surpassed the average test score posted by students in the country of the world that boasted the highest mathematics scores. The students would receive equivalent amounts for higher-education expenses.

"One of the problems in the past is we say to taxpayers, 'We're going to take money from you, but we don't know if we're going to get results,"' Mr. Gephardt said last week at a meeting with reporters. "Now we're saying, 'We guarantee that you will achieve the results you want."'

Mr. Gephardt proposes financing the plan with increased corporate income taxes. He acknowledged that such an increase will be a tough sell, especially since the total cost of his program cannot be estimated. It would also require development of new tests that could provide valid international comparisons and the collection of school-readiness data that is not now available.

The majority leader said that Mr. Ford of the Education and Labor Committee had assured him the plan would receive a hearing. The tax proposal would also have to be approved by the Ways and Means Committee.

Hearings on America 2000

Both House and Senate committees have already held hearings on America 2000 that featured Secretary Alexander.

Mr. Kildee's subcommittee has also held two other hearings focusing on the President's choice plan, which drew almost unrelenting fire.

Democrats reiterated their fears that a voucher plan would benefit primarily the more affluent families who already send children to private schools, and would leave disadvantaged students who are not accepted by those schools in increasingly weak public schools.

Mr. Goodling, who has voiced similar reservations, asked panelists at one hearing if they would favor a choice plan that required participating private schools to abide by the same rules as public schools, and to accept any child who applied.

In an interview, the Pennsylvania Republican added, "I always tell my parochial schools: Don't do anything that will get the arm of the federal government controlling what you do."

A representative of the U.S. Catholic Conference supported the Administration's choice plan, but representatives of public-education groups unanimously opposed it.

The foes argued both that it would be ruinous for public schools and that it was an unproven idea being given undue emphasis in the Bush plan.

Some groups suggested that only a demonstration program be tried, preferably including only public schools.

Education advocates gave mixed reviews to the Administration's "New American Schools" idea. They lauded its focus on restructuring, but argued it would not improve most schools without extensive linkage with state and local education programs.

"The focus on creating a small cadre of New American Schools and rewarding merit schools and outstanding teachers, while worthwhile activities in themselves," the National School Boards Association said in its testimony, "does not show promise of moving a nation of 16,000 school districts, almost 3 million teachers, and 40 million students toward excellence by the end of the decade."

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