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House's Bill Would Authorize Standards, But Not Assessment

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WASHINGTON--Provoking a veto threat from Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, the House Education and Labor Committee last week approved legislation to authorize the development of national subject-matter standards, but not the creation of a national testing system.

The measure would also permit only research on assessments and mandate the development of "school-delivery standards'' that would measure school resources and performance.

With its vote, the panel rejected the Bush Administration's America 2000 education strategy, which maintains only a faint presence in the legislation.

The bulk of HR 4323, the "neighborhood schools improvement act,'' would authorize $700 million in grants to states and school districts to develop and implement reform plans. The plans, to be drafted by committees representing a broad range of "stakeholders,'' could include a wide variety of education initiatives.

The bill would also reconfigure the National Education Goals Panel and authorize it to oversee standards-setting activity by subject-matter groups.

But the bill does not authorize the development of a national testing system, as does its Senate counterpart.

That bill, S 2, follows the recommendations of the National Council on Educational Standards and Testing, which the Administration backs.

The House panel also voted, in a separate bill reauthorizing the Education Department's research branch, to bar the department from any standards or testing activity not specifically authorized by the Congress.

The two bills authorize that testing research be conducted only by laboratories and centers, and that a clearinghouse established in 1990 develop math assessments using curriculum standards set by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

"This bill is worse than awful,'' Secretary Alexander said in a statement, calling the adoption of HR 4323 "a partisan act.''

He objected strongly to school-delivery standards, saying that they would make the goals panel a "national board of education that would override state and local boards.''

"The business-as-usual crowd said 'no' to break-the-mold schools for communities, to more flexibility for teachers, and to more flexibility for families,'' Mr. Alexander said. "The President should veto this bill if it ever reaches his desk.''

No Mention of Choice

The committee did not entirely reject the Administration's proposal to allow the Secretary to waive education regulations for districts seeking to use federal funds in innovative ways. But it scaled the proposal down to a demonstration project, as did S 2.

While school districts could create "new American schools'' under HR 4323, the Administration had sought a wide-open competition for 535 new-school grants in which both public and private entities would be eligible.

S 2 would allow states to use part of their reform funds to support new public schools, as well as public-school choice programs.

HR 4323 makes no mention of choice. Representative William D. Ford, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Education and Labor Committee, had struck a deal with the Administration and included in an earlier bill, HR 3320, language making choice programs--with or without private-school participation--an option under local plans.

The bill had been developed jointly by Representative Dale E. Kildee, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education, and Representative Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on both that subcommittee and the full committee.

Mr. Ford reneged on the deal after the Senate overwhelmingly rejected a private-school-choice demonstration program in debate on S 2.

The Administration has advocated a much larger choice program.

The Senate's decision to add the standards and assessment provisions to S 2 sparked a furious debate among Democrats on the House committee. Some members harbor deep reservations about a national testing system, which they fear could hurt disadvantaged children.
The Democrats considered taking authority to approve tests away from the goals panel, as well as mandating remedial aid for students who perform poorly on the tests.

A key aide said they decided to authorize the development of standards but to move more cautiously on testing because "there was more of a consensus on standards,'' and members wanted to retain control over the assessment issue.

Republicans complained last week about being shut out of the deliberations, and about the Democrats' decision to dump the bipartisan compromise of HR 3320.

Mr. Kildee also added provisions establishing a council to set vocational-skill standards. The Administration supports the idea, but Mr. Alexander opposed several aspects of the Kildee provisions in a letter, and the Administration would prefer to deal with the issue in a separate bill.

Mr. Goodling offered a substitute bill resembling HR 3320. But it also included a separate, $1-million new-schools program, and provisions authorizing both standards and assessments, as well as the school-delivery standards favored by Democrats.

The panel voted 27 to 13 to defeat the proposal; two Republicans joined the Democrats in voting against it.

A Bill for Bureaucrats?

Representative Dick Armey, Republican of Texas, mustered only seven votes for a substitute that would have earmarked a quarter of the bill's funding for inclusive choice programs; limited local reform activities to choice, merit-schools awards, site-based management, and new American schools; given governors control over state reform panels; and empowered the Secretary of Education to veto reform plans.

Mr. Armey called HR 4323 "a no-strings-attached grant program for the education bureaucrats'' that "would allow the money to be spent for almost anything but true education reform.''

"The language seems deliberately drafted to allow the money to fund such things as distributing sexual paraphernalia, deep-breathing exercises, teacher and administrator junkets, self-esteem courses, and expanding the already bloated school bureaucracies,'' he charged.

The reference to "sexual paraphernalia'' concerns the fear of many conservatives that language in both HR 4323 and S 2 supporting programs for the "coordination of health and social services with education'' could lead to the funding of school-based clinics distributing contraceptives.

Republicans did not seek a separate vote on choice, possibly deferring to private-school groups, who, committee sources say, feared an embarrassing defeat.

The committee voted 23 to 12 to approve HR 4323; one Republican voted for it, and two Democrats--both of whom had previously pushed for additional spending--voted against it.

The House is expected to consider the bill next month, after completing a House-Senate conference on the Higher Education Act. A conference on HR 4323 and S 2 would follow.

To Veto or Not To Veto?

Testing is likely to be the biggest issue in any conference committee, with school-delivery standards expected to provoke hot debate.

Such standards are anathema to the Administration, but crucial to the support of many House Democrats.

Some House members strongly oppose authorizing assessments, but others disagree, and some observers predict that the Senate language on that issue will be adopted.

At last week's committee markup, Representative Pat Williams, Democrat of Montana, offered an amendment to adopt most of S 2's testing language, then withdrew it after Mr. Kildee noted that he would "have the opportunity to make that motion in conference.''

Observers offered differing opinions last week on whether President Bush would veto the final legislation.

Some noted that it is likely to contain little of his program.

But others pointed out that the Administration is eager to win some authorization for standards and testing activity, and that it could be difficult for the self-proclaimed "Education President'' to veto a so-called reform bill in an election year.

"It would make great rhetoric,'' a Democratic House aide said. "We're counting on that.''

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