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Lawmakers, Administration Negotiate on Reform Bill

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WASHINGTON--The fate of legislation to support state and local education reform and authorize a federal role in developing national standards and tests hung in the balance late last week, as lawmakers negotiated among themselves and with the Bush Administration.

House and Senate negotiators appeared ready either to clear a final bill for floor consideration or to acknowledge that they cannot reach an accord quickly enough to enact the measure in the short time left before Congress adjourns for the year.

Before the formal conference committee meeting began last week, Congressional aides had worked out a compromise between House and Senate bills--HR 4323 and S 2--that left only a few issues to be resolved by lawmakers. But then Bush Administration officials, who had threatened a veto, told lawmakers they wanted to negotiate.

The Administration had criticized the bills, which contain little of President Bush's education proposals, and conservatives have urged a veto because the measures do not include private school vouchers.

The Administration made four demands:

  • Altering a pilot program allowing school districts to apply for regulatory waivers so that it would not be restricted to plans for helping disadvantaged students.
  • Removal of a requirement that "school delivery standards'' be developed to measure "capacities'' of states, districts, and schools "necessary to insure that all students have an opportunity to achieve'' the national academic standards to be developed.
  • Explicit inclusion of public school choice experiments as allowable activities under federally funded reform plans.
  • Language allowing states to reserve part of their grants for "New American Schools.'' This part of the Administration's America 2000 strategy was listed as an allowable use of funds under state plans in S 2 and under local plans in HR 4323.

No Bargaining Room

When conferees convened on Sept. 24, it became clear that the core of their problem was how to forge a compromise between the Administration and House Democrats.

"I don't want to play games with you. I don't have authority to vote a single Democratic vote for any of the items'' sought by the Administration, said Rep. William D. Ford, D-Mich., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. "I don't have any bargaining room on these items.''

Arguing that the delivery standards called for in the legislation would lead to excessive litigation and increased spending, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, suggested a compromise under which the delivery standards would be dropped. In exchange, he said, Republicans would agree to eliminate provisions authorizing the National Education Goals Panel to set up an advisory body and develop national content standards.

But many House Democrats are committed to the delivery standards, which they see as an essential counterweight to national standards.

As for the flexibility waivers, Mr. Ford said House Democrats fear a broad regulatory-waiver authority that is not focused on serving the disadvantaged would encourage schools to shortchange them.

Mr. Ford was especially critical of the Administration's proposal to couple that broad authority with a requirement that Chapter 1 compensatory-education funds be included in waiver plans.

Accord seemed more likely on New American Schools, which both Mr. Hatch and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Labor and Human Resources panel, suggested be included as a possible activity at the state level.

Take It and Run?

At one point, Mr. Ford suggested that conferees "take what the staff worked out today and run with it.''

The Democratic majority could move ahead with the bill without G.O.P. support. But Republicans would probably then kill it with procedural motions on the Senate floor.

Moreover, conferees still have other issues to resolve.

The heart of the bill is a block-grant program that would allot funds to states for reform plans. After the first year, states would have to pass on 80 percent of their allocations to districts, which would in turn have to pass on 90 percent of their grants to schools. The funds would be used for school-level restructuring efforts shaped under plans developed by district-level committees.

Lawmakers want to insure that much of the money goes to districts and schools serving the disadvantaged, but they have yet to agree on a mechanism to accomplish this.

The conference was to reconvene Sept. 25. A conference report had to be filed that day in order for the House and Senate to consider the measure before their scheduled adjournment.

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