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Administration Readies Reform, Assessment Bill

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WASHINGTON--Clinton Administration officials were preparing to send a major piece of education-reform legislation to Capitol Hill late last week and hoping that House Democrats who are cool to some of its provisions will support it out of party loyalty.

The "goals 2000: educate America act,'' based on a bill that died in the last Congress, has three components: a section codifying the national education goals, provisions establishing a federal role in developing national education standards and assessments, and a grant program supporting "systemic reform'' efforts at the state and local levels.

The Administration, however, views the legislation as more than the sum of its parts. According to a draft summary of the bill's provisions obtained by Education Week, it is intended to establish a "framework'' for meeting the national goals, "for relating federal education programs to education reform,'' and for guiding the reauthorization of the Education Department's research branch and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The office of educational research and improvement is due to be reauthorized this year, and the E.S.E.A., which contains the vast majority of federal elementary and secondary programs, is set to be reapproved next year.

The Administration views the measure "as the framework into which E.S.E.A. will fit, while some of our members view it as a distraction that is taking attention and money away from E.S.E.A.,'' one Democratic House aide said. "I hope those views can be reconciled.''

Education Department officials have been amending the draft legislation for the past couple of weeks, and a spokeswoman said it was "undergoing significant change daily.''

But Administration and Congressional sources said the key bone of contention concerns "opportunity-to-learn standards,'' the Administration's term for measures to gauge students' access to high-quality facilities and programs.

House Democrats first raised the controversial idea last year, then calling them "service-delivery standards,'' to address their fears that a national assessment system would penalize the disadvantaged and to provide a counterweight that would draw attention to inequities.

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley has said the Administration will propose that an "opportunity-to-learn commission'' certify standards. The bill summary indicates that the Secretary would appoint the commission.

Administration and House sources said department officials were trying to draft language that would satisfy the supporters of "opportunity'' standards without alienating others, particularly governors, who fear a sweeping federal mandate of school services.

An Administration source described the negotiations as "threading a needle between those who think it is the only good thing in the bill and those who think it is, at best, a necessary price to pay.''

House Democrats insisted that last year's bill require that "service'' standards be in place before student-performance standards are applied.

At a conference on testing earlier this month, Rep. William D. Ford of Michigan, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, stated his position.

"The legislation will not come out of my committee unless service-delivery standards are equal to or slightly ahead of any testing or standards,'' Mr. Ford said, directing his remarks at Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, the chairman of the National Governors' Association and a member of the National Education Goals Panel.

A Delicate Balance

"We've gone a long way toward accommodating their underlying concern,'' an Administration official said last week of the House Democrats. "We're trying to do it in a way that won't discourage states from adopting high standards.''

The draft summary, which is dated March 11, sketches out how the Administration plans to operate the grant program--although officials stressed that some of the details may be changed.

The draft indicates that the Administration views the program as an effort driven by state officials.

Last year's legislation described cooperative but separate efforts to draft reform plans at the state and local levels.

In contrast, the summary discusses federal support for states' efforts to "restructure their education systems,'' of which "subgrants to school districts and schools'' would be a part. While it suggests that states be required to pass on half their funds the first year and 80 percent thereafter to the local level, the draft devotes four pages to a discussion of state activities and mentions local plans only briefly.

District plans "shall reflect the same elements of education improvement that are included in the state plan, as should the individual school plans reflect the focus of the local system and state plans,'' the summary states.

It says a broad-based panel should develop state plans, which should include "a strategy for developing or adopting challenging content and performance standards and assessment tools'' linked with curricula and teacher-preparation systems; governance changes needed to establish a "performance-based system,'' which "may include'' public school choice or charter schools; public education strategies; plans to spread reforms "systemwide''; and strategies to insure that the needs of disadvantaged and gifted students are met.

Federal-State Agreements

States would agree to be measured against "specific benchmarks of improved student performance.'' Indeed, the draft says the Administration views these plans as "agreement[s] between the federal government and the state.''

In exchange, federal officials would "waive regulations in federal programs to the extent the waivers are necessary for implementing'' state plans. The summary implies that the Secretary would have broad waiver power, but Congressional aides said they were told that the bill will specify what rules can be waived under what circumstances.

Such regulatory flexibility was a top priority under the Bush Administration, but many Democrats expressed concern that it could lead to a diversion of funds intended to help special, disadvantaged populations.

Department officials were striving to submit at least an informal draft of the bill to Congress by last Friday. Education and Labor Committee aides said the Administration had been told that it would be difficult to keep the bill on a fast track if that deadline were not met.

Mr. Riley is to testify at a hearing on the bill this week, and the House committee is tentatively scheduled to consider the measure on March 30.

The legislation may not sail smoothly through that markup. The bill's precursor, last year's "neighborhood-schools improvement act,'' was originally drafted by Senate staff aides as an alternative to the Bush Administration's America 2000 strategy, and Mr. Ford was among many Democratic members of the House panel who made little effort to hide their lack of enthusiasm.

A Break in Ranks?

Senate aides said they expect Democrats on the Labor and Human Resources Committee to support the bill. But aides and lobbyists say House Democrats--including Chairman Ford--have told them privately that they will go along purely to support the President.

Not only are they concerned about the "flexibility'' and standards provisions, but some also fear the unproven grant program will steal limited funding from such existing programs as Chapter 1, a concern also expressed by some education lobbyists.

Some Democratic panel members are also uncomfortable about the specific mention of public school choice and charter schools.

"Their feeling is, 'Why should we open the door on choice, fight all the Republican amendments, expend time and energy, when we don't really like this anyway?' '' one education lobbyist said.

Most observers predict that Democrats' reluctance to embarrass a Democratic President will outweigh their misgivings. But the disaffected members form a substantial bloc on the panel, and some observers said it is conceivable that they may revolt, or at least hold out for concessions.

"The question is: Will Ford exert discipline?'' a House Republican aide said. "When his members come to him, will he twist arms or say, 'Vote your conscience'?''

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