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Reform Measure Dies--Except as Campaign Issue?

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WASHINGTON--Legislation to support state and local school-reform efforts and authorize a federal role in developing national education standards died last week--except, possibly, as a campaign issue.

The bill was approved by the House on Sept. 30, but the Senate fell one vote short of cutting off debate on the measure two days later, eliminating any chance that a vote on the bill could be taken before Congress recessed this week.

In floor debate, senators said the White House had taken no public position on the motion to close off debate, and Administration officials said they had not encouraged the move by conservative Republican senators to block consideration of the bill.

But the vote on the cloture motion was a party-line 59 to 40, with only two Republicans voting to take up the legislation.

Earlier, White House officials had said President Bush would veto the measure if it managed to overcome the procedural roadblocks, according to Republican aides.

In a letter to lawmakers, Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander said the bill, S 2, "pokes the federal government's nose too far into local decisions,'' would create "new layers of unworkable bureaucracy,'' and "fails to help change our schools.''

Earlier in the legislative process, Administration officials had indicated that they thought it might be possible to work out a compromise that the President would sign. That signal was sent when the Administration opened negotiations with lawmakers as a conference committee was poised to begin reconciling differences between House and Senate measures.

For their part, though, Congressional Democrats refused to make even token concessions, indicating that they preferred instead to present Mr. Bush with a dilemma.

The President's Dilemma

Had the bill passed, the President would have had two choices: to sign legislation that contains elements he strongly opposes and few provisions he wanted, or to veto a bill aimed at supporting local school reform just weeks before the election.

"I felt we went a long way in trying to work something out,'' Sen. Nancy L. Kassebaum, R-Kan., said in an interview after the conference committee voted on Sept. 25 to clear S 2 for floor consideration.

"At this point, it's just a political exercise,'' said Ms. Kassebaum, the ranking Republican on the Senate education subcommittee.

In private, Democrats acknowledged last week that they fully recognized the political value of the debate.

"It's no secret that nobody's really enthusiastic about this bill,'' a House Education and Labor Committee aide said. "Why should we make concessions to get it signed?''

Some key Democratic lawmakers, particularly in the House, have acknowledged from the start that they were advancing the measure primarily because they felt politically bound to advance a response to President Bush's education proposals. As the legislative process ran its course, less and less of the President's plan was reflected in the measure.

"The President wanted a bill, and he shall have a bill,'' Rep. William D. Ford, D-Mich., said after a meeting of the conference committee on S 2.

Mr. Ford, the chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, showed no concern when asked about the likely prospect that the legislation might be waylaid in the Senate or vetoed.

"If there is to be an abortion of this unborn child called the 'neighborhood schools improvement act,' '' Mr. Ford said, "it won't be on my hands.''

Measure's Provisions

The heart of the bill is a block-grant program that would allot funds to states, most of which would be passed on to districts and then to individual schools.

Most of the funds would be used for school-level restructuring efforts, and the rest for district and state reform initiatives. States, districts, and schools with high numbers of disadvantaged students would receive the lion's share of the grant money.

Lawmakers had decisively rejected Administration proposals to fund vouchers that parents could spend at public or private schools; indeed, aid to private schools is barred under S 2.

Creation of "new American schools''--another cornerstone of the Bush program that had been included in earlier bills--as well as public school choice are neither specifically included nor excluded as potential elements of reform plans.

A Bush proposal to allow the secretary of education to waive federal regulations that hamper local reform was scaled back to a small demonstration program and limited to projects that aim to help disadvantaged students.

Other key provisions would reconfigure the National Education Goals Panel for political balance, and authorize the development of national content standards and mathematics and science assessments that represent the start of a national assessment system.

But the Administration had sought much broader authority in the area of standards and assessment. At the same time, however, it vehemently opposed the development of national "school delivery standards'' to measure the capacity of states, districts, and schools to provide adequate educational services.

Delivery Standards at Issue

The proposal to develop delivery standards emerged as a major topic during debate in both the conference committee and on the Senate and House floors.

In his letter to lawmakers, Mr. Alexander said S 2 "creates at least the beginnings of a national school board'' that could issue mandates on such issues as curriculum and discipline.

At the conference, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, said the standards would encourage lawsuits to force increased education spending and equalization among school districts.

But some House Democrats view the delivery standards as a necessary counterweight to content standards and an assessment system, in which poor schools and disadvantaged students would presumably not perform well.

Rep. Major R. Owens, D-N.Y., said on the House floor that school standards are "a critical instrument for holding policymakers accountable for the way they treat our schools and a vital lever to drive greater equity and opportunity into an educational system that now cheats so many of our poor and minority children of a fair opportunity to learn.''

At the start of negotiations, the Administration demanded that the delivery standards be eliminated; that public school choice and new American schools be specifically listed as possible uses for state funds, which would be increased from 20 percent to 30 percent; and that the regulatory-waiver initiative not be limited to programs serving the disadvantaged.

Republicans later softened their demands, asking for inclusion of new schools under the 20 percent state reserve; language in a report accompanying the bill stating that public school choice is permissible in reform plans; delay in imposition of school standards and extensive involvement of state officials in creating them; and report language stating that programs mixing disadvantaged and other students are not barred under the regulatory-waiver provision.

Political Questions Remain

But House Democrats would not accept even what Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., termed "modest suggestions'' and "the most innocuous language.''

"Why should I?'' Mr. Ford asked. " 'Choice' and 'new schools' are just cliches used by the Secretary in making political speeches.''

On the House floor last week, Republicans offered a motion to return the bill to conference, which was defeated on a party-line vote of 254 to 166. S 2 was then approved by voice vote.

Two Republican senators, Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire, told the Senate leadership that they would block floor consideration.

Given the fact that Congress would not be in session to attempt a veto override, the outcome was important only in that a veto presented a clearer potential political issue than a defeat in the Senate.

Observers were left speculating about how the self-described "education President'' would defend Republicans' obstructionism, and on whether his Democratic opponent, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, would attempt to use it as campaign fodder.

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