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Senate Panel Passes Democrat-Backed Reform Plan

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WASHINGTON--Setting up a likely partisan confrontation, the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee last week approved Democrat-sponsored legislation that would provide funds to states and individual schools for the development and implementation of comprehensive reforms.

The measure's similarity in structure and concept to one approved by a House panel last month suggests that Congressional Democrats are coming closer to a consensus on how to respond to President Bush's America 2000 education program.

That response, the bills make evident, will be to offer a clear alternative, fought out along sharply drawn political lines, rather than to try to develop a compromise based on a modified version of the Administration's bill.

The Senate committee approved the legislation, S 2, by voice vote. But, while Republicans did not contest the action, they criticized the Democrats for forging the bill without consulting them and indicated that they would attempt to change it either in negotiations or on the Senate floor.

"We were very disappointed that the bill before us today is not a bipartisan bill," said Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the panel's ranking Republican. "Having said that, I think the bill actually moves in directions Republicans would like to see an education bill move." Senator Dave Durenberger of Minnesota was more blunt, accusing the Democrats of using the bill to score political points.

"We all know why the majority leader is going to call this bill up next week," Mr. Durenberger said. "It's the same reason he's been playing around with unemployment benefits."

School-Choice Split

While they are in accord in many respects, the bills approved by the House and Senate committees differ on a number of key points.

The House measure, for example, would target aid to school districts, while the Senate bill would create the first major federal education program to funnel money directly to individual schools.

The bills also split in their treatment of the controversial issue of school choice, with the Senate bill permitting federal funding only of programs restricted to public schools. The House bill, HR 3320, includes choice plans--including or excluding private schools--as one of many activities states and school districts can choose to pursue as part of their reform strategies, which are to be drafted at both levels by committees with a majority of educators.

Under the House bill, states could use most of their first-year fun& for planning and technical assistance to districts, and would have to pass through 75 percent of their allocations in succeeding years to districts. (See Education Week, Oct. 23, 1991 .)

The Senate bill would also allow states to use first-year funds to fund state public-school choice plans or teacher training. States would retain only 10 percent of their allocation in succeeding years for administrative purposes, but could request a waiver to use another 10 percent for choice or training.

State-level committees would award the rest to individual schools competitively, on the basis of reform plans drafted by local panels. "High need" schools--those with many disadvantaged children, very low academic achievement, or acute financial problems--would receive at least 75 percent of each state's allocation.

The list of activities for which schools or districts could use their grants is broad in both bills. But the House bill includes creation of innovative "new American schools," a cornerstone of the Bush package, as an allowable activity, while the Senate bill would only encourage schools to consider designs created by the New American Schools Development Corporation, a private entity set up by the Administration.

HR 3320 also lists programs providing comprehensive health and social services to children--anathema to conservatives who fear it could lead to funding of school-based clinics---and awards for "merit schools," another idea Mr. Bush had proposed as a separate, national program. The Senate includes neither one.

'Same Old Approach'

Administration officials, meanwhile, issued a letter criticizing S 2 as "only more of the same old approach."

The letter repeated the objections the Administration made to HR 3320, arguing that a broad list of activities "does not ensure that real reform will occur," and asking that funding be limited to ideas the Administration had proposed in America 2000. The Administration also asked lawmakers to guarantee governors a primary role in the process, to give the secretary more authority to disapprove state plans, and to include a program ensuring experiments with private-school choice.

The Administration's bill had included a $200-million program of incentives to districts that adopt choice plans including private schools, but officials have scaled down their proposal to a small demonstration program.

Senate aides said Republicans are expected to offer that proposal as a floor amendment, and that the outcome is too close to call.

"There is a risk that we won't be able to beat it," said a Democratic committee aide, '%but there are some members of the committee who feel very strongly about private schools."

Representative William D. Ford took a different tack. The Michigan Democrat, who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, included choice as an "allowable activity" in HR 3320, despite protests from other panel members, because he feared an amendment ensuring support for private-school programs. (See Education Week, Nov. 6, 1991 .)

Mr. Ford made a deal with White House officials, who promised to oppose changes in the compromise choice language. But that agreement holds only for House consideration of HR 3320.

It is in the Senate where Administration officials had hoped to win approval for some of their proposals.

The original version of S 2, which was approved by the Labor Committee's Democratic majority on a party-line vote in April, was clearly a partisan document. Like the current bill, it included provisions "codifying" the national education goals and calling for unspecified funding increases, and a proposal to create a new council to monitor progress towards the goals.

Despite major differences with Mr. Bush's proposal, key sponsors of the earlier bill expressed a willingness to work with the Administration, and sources said substantial progress toward a compromise had been made before talks broke off in July.

Senate Democratic leaders then spent almost two months debating their next move, aides said, and decided more than a month ago not to try to placate the Administration.

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