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Fierce Partisan Fight on Education Looms in Congress

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WASHINGTON--The Congress will kick off its 1992 session this week with a fiercely partisan battle over education policy, featuring a last-ditch effort by the Bush Administration to get lawmakers to accept some of its America 2000 education strategy and a fight over funding for private-school choice.

The skirmish will likely set the tone for a year in which debate on federal education policy is expected to be more combative than usual, observers say.

They predict that the looming Presidential election will harden the opposing positions of the Administration and Congressional Democrats on many items on the legislative agenda, which includes national-testing legislation, re-authorization of the Higher Education Act and the Education Department's research branch, and possibly a rewrite of the Job Training Partnership Act.

As a result, observers note, it is possible that the self-proclaimed "education President" could veto more than one major education bill this year.

In a discussion with reporters last week, Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander denied that such a development would be a political liability.

"I would welcome that debate," he said. "I wouldn't mind stepping up to say... we didn't waste your money."

Partisan wrangling is also expected on budgetary issues, as the Administration and the Congress debate changes in their 1990 budget agreement that would allow savings in defense spending to be diverted to domestic programs or tax cuts.

Without a change, education advocates say, significant cuts in education and other programs would be required to meet spending restrictions for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

President Bush underscored the partisan nature of the education debate last week, when he launched an attack on S 2, the education-reform legislation to be considered in the Senate this week.

"While Americans across this nation are working to spark a revolution for the future, the Senate regrettably remains riveted on the past," Mr. Bush told chamber-of-commerce officials gathered here to discuss America 2000. "The train's gathering steam, and this bill is literally standing in the way."

The President is urging senators to support three amendments that embody key elements of his plan:

  • Authorizing $535 million to create an innovative school in each Congressional district;
  • Giving the secretary of education authority to waive statutory and regulatory requirements for schools that adopt performance standards; and
  • Creating a demonstration program to reward school districts that adopt choice plans allowing public funds to go to private schools.

Battle Lines Drawn

The stage was set for the confrontation last fall, when Democrats in both the House and Senate decided to move forward with their own alternative legislation, rather than work with the Administration's bill.

The Senate majority leader, George J. Mitchell of Maine, filed a petition last month to allow consideration of S 2 over the objections from conservative Republicans, as long as 60 senators approve. The vote is set for Jan. 21.

Both S 2 and its House counterpart, HR 3320, would provide relatively unrestricted funding to states, districts, and schools for the development and implementation of reforms.

The Senate bill would allow funding for public-school choice plans only, and does not mention any of the Administration's proposals.

While Mr. Bush said last week that the House bill "shows some promise," it is much more similar to S 2 than to the Administration plan.

But the bill, which would provide aid to states and districts, would allow local-option reforms to include choice plans that either include or exclude private schools, and also includes creation of "new American schools"as an "allowable activity."

The Administration struck a deal on HR 3320's choice language with Representative William D. Ford, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, agreeing that, if he included it, they would not support efforts to add amendments like the ones to be proposed in the Senate.

Neither bill includes the Administration's regulatory-waiver language.

Veto Threat

Mr. Alexander would not say whether the Administration would support the House bill if its amendments were defeated in the Senate, but said he would recommend a veto of the current S 2.

While the Administration-backed amendments have drawn the most attention, Senate aides said they expect others to be offered this week, including additional choice plans.

Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, will also offer an amendment embodying a compromise that may settle a longstanding dispute over the composition of the National Education Goals Panel. Mr. Bingaman had long sought a more independent panel that would include educators as well as the governors and Administration officials who are its current members.

The amendment would codify a compromise endorsed last month by the National Council on Education Standards and Testing, a body created by the Congress and the Administration to make recommendations on national assessment.

Under the compromise, the panel would be reconfigured to include members of the Congress as voting members and to be evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.

The reconstituted panel would then appoint a 21-member council of state and local officials and educators, which would coordinate the development of standards in academic subjects and certify assessments under the oversight of the goals panel.

The Administration and key senators are nearing agreement on the language, according to a Senate aide.

However, House aides said the panel's recommendations would be more controversial in that chamber, since a significant faction on the Education and Labor Committee is hostile to the idea of national standards and testing. Those members, aides said, are likely to demand that published test scores be accompanied by measures of the resources available to schools.

The subcommittee on elementary, secondary, and vocational education will hold hearings next month on the issue before taking any action.

That panel is also working on a comprehensive--and expensive education bill that is expected to include aid for urban and rural schools and expansions of existing programs.

But the next item on the Congressional agenda, after S 2, is the Higher Education Act.

Higher Education Act

The Senate's reauthorization bill, S 1150, is expected to face at least two important amendments, both of which failed when the Labor and Human Resources Committee considered the bill.

Republicans will again seek to strike the bill's most contentious proposal to make the Pelf Grant an entitlement in the 1997-98 school year.

A second amendment, to be offered by Senator Paul Simon, Democrat of Illinois, would create a program in which the Education Department would make loans directly to students. An aide to Mr. Simon said the amendment would likely make such a program optional for institutions in an attempt to garner more support.

The Congress will have to grapple further with that proposal, even if Mr. Simon's amendment fails, since one of the central provisions in the House bill which is expected to see floor action after lawmakers' February recess--is a similar direct-loan plan.

Most Republicans on the Education and Labor Committee opposed the idea, and numerous Democrats have expressed reservations about it.

Last month, Mr. Ford said he would be willing to compromise on the issue, and a pilot program is being drafted.

But some Republican aides say Chairman Ford may be using the proposal as "trade" bait to ensure that HR 3553's most contentious provision, a Pell entitlement that would go into effect in fiscal 1993 and double the cost of the program to $11 billion, remains intact.

The Bush Administration has said it would veto a bill containing those two provisions.

Research on the Agenda

Lawmakers are also expected to clash with the Administration over legislation to reauthorize the Education Department's office of educational research and improvement.

The lightning red is a proposal to create an independent body to oversee its operations--and prevent the Administration from using the agency to further its political agenda, a longtime concern on Capitol Hill. The plan is part of the reauthorization bill sponsored by Representative Major R. Owens, Democrat of New York. The bill, which calls for significantly increased research spending, is likely to be taken up in committee by early spring.

A reauthorization bill has not yet been introduced in the Senate, and no information was available last week on the contents of a draft that is being hammered out by staff members of the Labor and Human Resources Committee.

But many observers expect the bill to include authorization for a national test, a longtime proposal of Senator Claiborne Pell, Democrat of Rhode Island, who is a primary architect of the legislation.

That idea will be opposed not only by the same House members who are disturbed by the recommendations to be included in S 2, but by the Administration, which backs the concept of a system of assessments.

The House measure, which has the strong support of the education-research community, would create four institutes to study major issues.

In addition to institutes on at-risk students and school governance, which were included in Mr. Owens's original proposal, the current draft would establish institutes on early childhood education and student achievement.

The measure would also create an office of dissemination and school improvement, to spread research findings and exemplary practices, and a special-assistance program to help urban and rural schools meet the six national education goals.

But the most contentious provision is likely to be one to create a 20-member board to oversee the O.E.R.I.

In a report issued last year, the staff of Mr. Owens's Subcommittee on Select Education argued that such a board is necessary to "reassure governmental decisionmakers and the public in general that there will be a determined, ongoing effort to maintain maximum feasible freedom from partisan interference."

But Diane S. Raviteh, the assistant secretary of education for educational research and improvement, said such a board would hamstring the agency and would make it impossible to administer.

"The [proposed] board has too much to do," she said. "No board in America runs an agency or an organization."

Associate Editor Robert Rothman and Staff Writer Mark Pitsch contributed to this report.

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