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Congress Opens Amid Forecasts Bills Could Add Up to Watershed Session

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WASHINGTON--As the 103rd Congress convenes this month, some observers are anticipating a watershed session that could see enactment of major new education programs and significant changes in existing ones.

"I think it has the potential to be a very important year legislatively, with an excellent opportunity to expand federal involvement in education,'' said Michael Casserly, the interim executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools.

Congress is due to reauthorize most precollegiate-education programs this year, as well as education-research programs.

The incoming President, Bill Clinton, brings to Washington promises for new student-aid and job-training programs, and a record of involvement in education reform that suggests his Administration may be especially active in efforts to improve the schools.

And the election of the first Democratic President in 12 years may embolden the Democrat-controlled Congress, which has often been bogged down in partisan bickering with the White House during the Reagan and Bush administrations.

In addition, the ideas of the American education-reform movement are beginning to find their way to Capitol Hill. Some observers think lawmakers, in concert with Mr. Clinton, may take a fresh look at the federal role in education, with an eye toward encouraging systemic reforms and increasing equity.

"The last time we really significantly focused on a new approach to the federal role in education goes back to 1965,'' said Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education. That was the year the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher Education Act were enacted.

"I think it's time to break out of that time warp,'' he said.

Contradictory Trends?

The new ideas under discussion apparently follow two themes, which, in some ways, are directly contradictory.

On one hand, observers note, lawmakers and their aides are talking about increasing flexibility in how schools use their funds and in moving from narrowly focused, categorical programs to efforts to support broader reform.

"We have to ask, what happens when schools get the money? Do they do something significant with it?'' said John F. Jennings, the chief Democratic counsel to the House Education and Labor Committee. "Is there a way we can refocus these programs to tie them in to something so they have a broader impact?''

On the other hand, lawmakers are also talking about imposing national standards on schools, increasing accountability for student outcomes, and taking steps to encourage increased equity among school districts.

"I think it's a scary trend,'' said Allyson M. Tucker, the manager of the center for educational policy at the Heritage Foundation. "When it's said and done, they may find they've done more to hurt education than to help it.''

Observers also note that Democrats' lock on power may stir more traditional impulses to pile up expensive new spending programs. Sensing an opportunity, some education groups have even proposed a program of general federal aid.

"President Clinton's going to have a big concern in keeping his majority under control,'' Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, said in an interview. "I hope we don't go back to the days of pumping out money.''

Lawmakers and aides from both parties said they are waiting for Mr. Clinton to take the lead on most issues. An aide to Rep. William D. Ford, D-Mich., the chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, said Mr. Ford told him that Mr. Clinton "is the quarterback, and we'll run the plays.''

"I think this President is going to be in a position where he can make what he wants to happen, happen,'' Mr. Goodling said. "I hope he uses the opportunity wisely.''

Education-related subjects Congress is to address this year include:

K-12 Programs

The most voluminous education bill of the session will be the measure to reauthorize precollegiate-education programs. Mr. Kildee has scheduled five hearings next month, and hopes to have legislation on the House floor in April.

The largest program by far is Chapter 1, and the remedial-education program is expected to receive the lion's share of attention.

One of the most contentious debates will be an old-fashioned political struggle over the program's funding formula, which is based on U.S. Census counts of poor children. (See Education Week, May 6, 1992.)

The 1990 figures will be used for the first time this year, and some Northern states stand to lose money to growing Sun Belt states.

Aides agree that Congress is likely to take action to help states that stand to lose. On the other hand, high-growth states are pushing for more frequent updates of the data.

Congress is also certain to revisit the program-improvement process it instituted for Chapter 1 in the 1988 reauthorization. While observers and insiders unanimously agree that an accountability mechanism will be retained, they also acknowledge that the current process must be revised. They say it relies too heavily on standardized tests and has allowed many poorly performing programs to slip by without making major changes. (See Education Week, March 25, 1992.)

"The big question is what you replace those tests with,'' a Democratic aide to the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee said.

Interest in revising Chapter 1 to make it a catalyst for systemic reforms, instead of or in addition to its traditional role of providing remedial services to individual children, also appears to be building.

The recent report of the Independent Commission on Chapter 1, which Congressional aides say is having a strong influence on their internal debate, recommended targeting funds more narrowly to the poorest schools, but focusing programs in those schools toward wholesale reforms. It proposes incentives and penalties for educators tied to an accountability system that relies on unspecified performance-based tests. The panel also proposed that Congress require states to equalize resources among their districts. (See Education Week, Dec. 16, 1992.)

Aides agreed that it would be difficult for Congress to embrace a new, unproven kind of testing system, and that it is highly unlikely that lawmakers would impose a sweeping federal mandate for funding equity. However, they also agreed that the issue of the appropriate federal role in that area will be discussed more widely than ever before.

"I think it will be evolutionary,'' Mr. Kildee said. "We'll keep putting more and more incentives, more and more prodding into parts of the bill to move [states] in that direction.''

Lawmakers are also considering changes in Chapter 1, and possibly in other programs, to encourage the use of schools as focal points for the coordination of social services for children.

While Chapter 1 is likely to dominate the reauthorization debate, Congressional aides said they also expect to look seriously at proposals to retool the Chapter 2 block grant to focus it on systemic reform, and to revamp the impact-aid program that provides assistance to districts affected by large federal installations.

The National Association of Federally Impacted Schools has proposed that the current system of district categories be replaced with a system of weights for students with particular needs. (See Education Week, Oct. 7, 1992.)

Some education groups are also lobbying to change the federal bilingual-education program from a competitive-grant program to a larger formula program.

Standards and Testing

After several years of debate, Congress is expected to approve legislation defining a federal role in the development of national academic standards and a national student-assessment system.

After the 1989 education summit led to the drafting of national education goals, Congress spent two years feuding with the Bush Administration over the panel formed to measure progress toward the goals.

Even after an agreement was reached to reconfigure the panel for political balance, some Democrats in the House balked at authorizing the use of federal funds for national standards and tests, which they argued would hurt disadvantaged students. They insisted on simultaneous development of national "school-delivery standards'' to measure the capacity of schools to provide adequate services.

President Bush and many Congressional Republicans vehemently opposed the idea, arguing that such an approach would take authority away from state and local officials and encourage equity lawsuits.

Privately, proponents acknowledge that the standards are intended to prod states toward equalization. They also say they will continue to insist that they be part of a standards-and-testing package, and most observers agree that the legislation will not clear the House without them.

While Mr. Clinton was an author of the national goals and is a strong supporter of national standards, the former Governor of Arkansas has taken no position on delivery standards.

"I would hope he would take a governor's position against increased mandates from the federal government,'' Ms. Tucker of the Heritage Foundation said, noting that Richard W. Riley, Mr. Cinton's nominee for Secretary of Education and another former governor, spoke disapprovingly of such mandates at his confirmation hearing last week.

Systemic Reform

The testing and goals-panel provisions were incorporated last year into legislation that would also have provided grants to states and districts to develop and implement school-reform plans. The bill was drafted as an alternative to President Bush's education proposals, and had only lukewarm support in Congress and the education community. When it fell victim to a filibuster, most observers thought that would be the end of it. (See Education Week, Oct. 7, 1992.)

But top education advisers to Mr. Clinton have said he may push to revive the legislation early in the term, and some lawmakers are also apparently interested in doing so.

"We could give him a significant education accomplishment in the first 100 days,'' Mr. Kildee said.

Education Research

Observers and Congressional aides say it is hard to predict when the Education Department's office of educational research and improvement will be reauthorized, or what form the legislation will take.

In the last session, the House adopted legislation drafted by Rep. Major R. Owens, D-N.Y., that would divide the agency into subject-based "institutes,'' and create an independent policy board with enormous authority over the agency's agenda.

A counterpart bill approved by the Senate also created separate "directorates,'' but not an oversight board. Mr. Owens ushered a compromise bill through the House, but the Senate failed to act. (See Education Week, Sept. 30, 1992.)

Mr. Owens, some other lawmakers, and most representatives of the research community would like to see a bill similar to the compromise enacted early in the session. Some aides suggested that the legislation related to the goals panel and national standards be incorporated into the O.E.R.I. bill. But aides and lobbyists agreed that leaders of the House and Senate education panels do not view it as a high priority.

"I think that what Clinton and Riley decide to do is going to be the decisive factor,'' a Democratic aide to the House Education and Labor Committee said.

Mr. Clinton's proposal to allow students to perform community service in exchange for college-tuition vouchers or federal-loan forgiveness is expected to be among his early priorities. But as the budget outlook becomes bleaker, it is unclear whether the plan will be scaled back. (See Education Week, Jan. 13, 1992.)

"With these new programs, we expect to see a multi-year approach that begins relatively modestly and builds with experience and as the economy gets into a more vigorous mode,'' said Michael Edwards, the manager of Congressional relations for the National Education Association.

Congressional aides said their bosses are receptive to the aid proposal. But some also say the plan may run into trouble as the details are mapped out.

"There are just so many questions about this,'' a Republican aide to the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee said.

Job Training

Mr. Clinton has also proposed new programs to boost the skills of American workers, particularly the noncollege-bound, and his interest could spawn a raft of legislation.

Many lawmakers are expected to reintroduce bills from last session that would help create youth-apprenticeship programs or other school-to-work transition initiatives at the state and local levels.

Most Democrats said they would take their lead in this area from the new Administration, and Mr. Clinton is still deciding how to proceed.

But a bill sponsored last year by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, R-Ore., may provide some clues. It incorporated many of the reforms advocated in "America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages,'' a report by the National Center for Education and the Economy whose themes were embraced by the Clinton campaign.

The act would have created a national board to help develop skills standards for a range of occupations, demonstration projects to provide high school students with a combination of academic and on-the-job training, and "youth-opportunity centers'' for high school dropouts.

A revised version is expected to be introduced in the next few weeks.

School Lunch

While the school-lunch and -breakfast programs do not expire until 1994, Mr. Kildee has introduced a bill to reauthorize the entitlements, and he plans to hold hearings this year.

Aides said key issues are likely to be improving the nutritional content of the meals, increasing participation in the programs, and reducing paperwork. A few lawmakers are looking into the costs of a universal program that provides meals to all students.

Family Leave

Congress is expected to act swiftly on the "family and medical leave act,'' a measure vetoed twice by Mr. Bush that would require large firms to grant workers unpaid leave for family emergencies.

Virtually the same bill Mr. Bush vetoed was reintroduced in the House Jan. 5 and was expected to be reintroduced in the Senate this week. Mr. Clinton backs the bill, which is expected to clear both chambers easily.

Deborah L. Cohen, Lynn Olson, Mark Pitsch, and Jessica Portner also contributed to this story.

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