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Senate Overwhelmingly Adopts School-Reform Bill

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WASHINGTON--The Senate last week overwhelmingly approved legislation to provide funds to states and individual schools to design and implement education-reform plans.

The 92-to-6 vote on the measure, S 2, shifts action to the House, where a companion bill awaits floor action.

But aides said it is likely that the House bill, HR 3320, will be amended in committee, where the debate will center on assessment and choice.

The Bush Administration suffered a major defeat during Senate consideration of S 2, when lawmakers decisively rejected a pilot program that would have allowed low-income families to use federal money to send children to private schools. (See Education Week, Jan. 29, 1992.)

Aides and lobbyists had predicted that the vote on the choice amendment would be much closer than the eventual 57-to-36 margin that fell largely along party lines.

Public-school advocates characterized it as a "watershed vote" that put the Congress on record, for the first time since 1983, solidly against giving public money to private schools.

Private-school advocates maintained, meanwhile, that public opinion is on their side.

"We're not discouraged," said John W. Sanders, the vice president of the National Association of Independent Schools. "Support is growing for this, and I would advise anyone who opposes it to have some input into it now."

Private-School Funding

But virtually all observers said last week that the margin of victory severely decreases the likelihood that legislation will emerge from the Congress this year with a provision for private-school choice. Senate aides from both parties unanimously attributed the outcome to an intensive lobbying campaign by public-school groups.

"If the vote had been taken Nov. 1, it would have been a lot closer, and the outcome might have been different," one Democratic aide said.

"Two months ago, we were counting 32 votes," said Michael Casserly, the acting executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. "By Christmas, we only had 40 votes we were sure of."

Private-school advocates "were closer to winning this than they ever were before," Mr. Casserly added.

Some aides and lobbyists said the actual split of opinion in the Senate was much more evenly divided than the final vote tally reflected.

Observers said that some Democrats were prepared to support the amendment, but that they changed their minds when they saw it was going to lose because they did not want to cast a vote that would earn them the ire of the Senate leadership and public-school groups in their states if it were a losing cause.

"We got three Democratic votes," said Greg Kubiak, the government liaison for the Council for the Advancement of Private Education. "If we could have gotten six [Democratic] votes, we could have gotten 12."

House Bill Faces Changes

Nonetheless, the official vote count is likely to embolden choice opponents in the House, where the chairman of the Education and Labor Committee agreed to make choice systems that either include or exclude private schools one possible element of local-option reform plans.

Representative William D. Ford, the committee chairman, has said he agreed to the compromise because he feared that a program earmarking funds for private schools could pass in both chambers.

In exchange, John Sununu, the former White House chief of staff, had pledged that the Administration would not support amendments proposing stronger choice language.

An aide to Mr. Ford declined to say what the Michigan Democrat's strategy would now be.

However, the aide said: "It is crystal clear from everything he has said that Mr. Ford is philosophically opposed to the language, and I will tell you that he was very impressed with the Senate vote."

Observers predicted that choice proponents would probably try to change the language as well, noting that, if both sides adhered to their agreement, nothing would stop Mr. Ford from allowing the provision to be deleted once the bill is considered in a House-Senate conference committee to reconcile differences.

"It's hard to imagine that when the President of the United States puts his emphasis and a great amount of resources into private schools that his supporters won't try to find some kind of mechanism to do it," said Michael Edwards, the manager of Congressional relations for the National Education Association.

There is likely to be an opportunity to amend HR 3320 before it goes to the floor, as the committee may bring the bill back to add provisions ! dealing with national testing.

The Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education has scheduled three hearings on the issue this month.

Testing an Issue

The testing issue was raised when senators added to S 2 a section implementing a compromise approved by the National Council on Education Standards and Testing.

Eager to win approval of the Congressionally mandated council, the Bush Administration dropped its opposition to reconfiguring the National Education Goals panel to balance it politically, and also accepted creation of an expert council the goals panel would appoint.

The two panels would jointly oversee the setting of national standards for student achievement and certify tests as part of a national-assessment system. (See Education Week, Jan. 29, 1992.)

House aides predicted that members hostile to the idea of national testing would insist that any such legislation also provide for reporting of the resources available to schools.

The provisions were added to S 2 on a 96-to-0 vote. Before the final vote on the bill, the Senate also:

  • Approved by voice vote an amendment calling for a study of the effect on public-school finances of state tax abatements for business.
  • Voted 55 to 43 to table an amendment that would have made it easier for states to adopt so-called "learnfare" rules, under which welfare recipients can lose benefits if their children are truant from school.
  • Declined to waive budgetary rules to consider a "sense of the Senate" amendment calling for legislation that "realigns" the 1990 budget agreement to shift "unnecessary military spending" into domestic programs. The proposal, which would have needed a three-fifths majority to prevail, was defeated on a vote of 53 to 45.

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