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House, Senate Begin Talks on Bill To Assist School Reform

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Washington--Congressional aides began negotiations last week aimed at producing a final version of the year's chief piece of school-reform legislation.

The staff talks got under way after a bipartisan majority in the Senate last week brushed aside a procedural roadblock thrown up by a small group of conservative Republicans.

On an 85-to-6 vote, senators cut off debate on a routine parliamentary motion clearing the way for a House-Senate conference on the legislation. The strong Republican support for the motion suggests that the Bush Administration may be willing to negotiate, which would greatly improve the prospects for the legislation to become law.

It is still unclear, however, whether President Bush would sign a final bill, which is likely to contain little of his own education agenda.

The two bills, HR 4323 and S 2, seek to establish a block-grant program that would fund the development and implementation of state and local reform plans.
The Senate bill would direct funds to individual schools, while the House bill would direct them to school districts. There are also differences between the bills on how the committees in control of local reform efforts would be structured.

In addition, S 2 would allow states to use some funds to experiment with public school choice, while HR 4323 does not mention the topic.

Assessment Debate

But most of the debate in conference is expected to focus on separate provisions that would authorize a federal role in the development of a national system of standards and assessment.

S 2 includes language that tracks the recommendations of the bipartisan National Council on Educational Standards and Testing, which the Bush Administration supports. It would authorize work on subject-matter standards and on assessment, overseen by a reconfigured National Education Goals Panel.

The House bill would authorize the development of national subject-matter standards. But it would permit only research on assessments, and only if done by existing laboratories and centers. It would also require the development of so-called "school delivery'' standards to measure school resources and performance.

The more limited approach was demanded by a faction of House Democrats, who fear that a national testing system would have a detrimental effect on disadvantaged students and schools that lack resources. (See Education Week, May 27, 1992.)

Neither bill contains more than a faint echo of President Bush's education proposals, and Administration officials have issued numerous veto threats, particularly against the House bill.

Both include a small-scale version of the Administration's proposal to allow the Secretary of Education to waive education regulations. While the Administration sought a wide-open competition for 535 grants to establish innovative "New American Schools,'' for which both public and private entities would be eligible, creating new schools would be merely one option for local plans under HR 4323, and a state option under S 2. Both bills limit funding to public schools.

The Administration and its Congressional supporters were defeated in several attempts to add private school voucher plans to the legislation. Conservative organizations are pressing the President to veto the final bill over that issue.

Ready To Deal?

But the Administration very much wants authority to develop standards and a testing system. Moreover, Mr. Bush may be reluctant to veto a school-reform bill during the election season.

Indeed, last week's action indicates that the President may be willing to negotiate.

Conservative senators had blocked consideration of a motion to begin discussions with the House on the bills. Led by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., the opponents wanted to offer amendments dealing with such issues as the distribution of contraceptives in schools.

Observers also speculated that Mr. Helms was acting on the Administration's behalf, to spare Mr. Bush the pre-election dilemma of vetoing the bill or signing a measure he did not like.

But Administration officials insisted that they had not asked Mr. Helms to block the bill, Senate aides said, and Republican senators said the same thing during debate.

None of the senators who sought to impede the bill's progress explained during debate why they had done so.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the ranking Republican on the Labor and Human Resources Committee, said he thought the President would sign the final product if it was similar to S 2, but that Mr. Bush would veto a bill resembling HR 4323.

A formal conference meeting of House and Senate members could be held as soon as this week.

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