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Democrats' Objections Spur E.D. To Delay Reform Bill

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WASHINGTON--After a somewhat stormy meeting with Democratic members of the House Education and Labor Committee last week, Education Department officials decided to delay the release of their education-reform legislation, and action on the bill was postponed indefinitely.

Aides said the lawmakers told Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley that they were irritated that they had not had more input into the drafting of the bill, and that the version they received late on March 18 would have to be amended before the committee would approve it.

"If he didn't get the picture before, I suspect he gets it now,'' one committee aide said.

Michael Cohen, a consultant to Mr. Riley who has taken the lead on drafting the legislation, said, "It is fair to say they and the Secretary had a very frank discussion.''

But he added that Administration officials were not completely surprised, and that they did not view the draft as a final proposal.

"There has been ongoing consultation; nobody is steamrolling anybody,'' Mr. Cohen said, adding that, if the bill were a finished product, "we wouldn't have gone up there to meet with them.''

Administration officials had said, however, that they might release the bill publicly as early as last week, and committee aides said they believed the Administration had expected them to proceed with the version they are now calling a draft.

The aides noted that, at the Administration's behest, the panel had scheduled a hearing last week with Mr. Riley and had set formal consideration of the bill for March 30. Both events were canceled last week.

After the Capitol Hill meeting, Education Department officials opened active negotiations not only with the House committee, but also with education groups. Some lobbyists who had expressed misgivings about the bill were more sanguine last week.

"They were talking at us; now they're talking with us,'' said Bruce Hunter, the senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "We're used to guerrilla warfare against hostile Administrations; now we have to learn to work together.''

A Lack of Enthusiasm

Several committee members have signaled their displeasure with the legislation, which is based on a bill originally drafted last year as an alternative to the Bush Administration's America 2000 proposal. While last year's measure had stronger support among Senate Democrats, the House panel approved it only reluctantly. The bill died at the end of the 102nd Congress.

Like last year's version, the Clinton Administration bill would codify the national education goals as the basis of federal education policy, establish a federal role in developing a system of national education standards and assessments, and create a grant program to support the development and implementation of state and local reform plans. (See Education Week, March 24, 1993.)

Mr. Cohen said the Administration also plans to attach its proposal for occupational-skills standards to the bill. The March 18 draft, a copy of which was obtained by Education Week, indicates that the Labor Department is to supply language creating a "national workforce standards board.''

Lawmakers are likely to raise questions about some aspects of the grant program, aides said, but the primary sticking point is their desire to balance performance standards and assessments with standards to measure the adequacy of services provided by schools.

The concept of such standards--called "school-delivery standards'' in last year's debate and "opportunity-to-learn standards'' in the current bill--was raised by panel members who fear the impact of high-stakes testing on disadvantaged students.

They told Mr. Riley last week that they want to insure that such standards are in place before large-scale testing of students can proceed.

"When someone takes a test, are you going to figure out whether the school failed or the child failed?'' one aide said. "We want to insure that kids aren't tested without having been given the tools to succeed.''

The March 18 draft would create an "opportunity-to-learn commission,'' appointed by the Secretary, that would draft a set of model standards and indicators. The bill would also require that states participating in the grant program insure that their reform plans "address'' the "development or adoption'' of both student-performance standards and "opportunity'' standards.

How Strong a Mandate?

But aides note that the academic standards are emphasized in both the bill and in Administration policy.

"We're afraid they will, in practice, overshadow everything else,'' a committee aide said.

Many observers, noting that both Mr. Riley and President Clinton are former governors, speculate that the Administration will be reluctant to impose on states the strong mandate House Democrats want. Indeed, supporters of the testing provisions fear that they would induce some states to opt out of the whole reform program.

Mr. Cohen said he could not comment on the likelihood of a compromise until he knows exactly what the lawmakers are proposing.

"We've asked them to give us something in writing,'' he said.

In any case, aides said, proponents of strong "opportunity'' standards apparently have enough votes to amend the bill in committee.

Rep. William D. Ford, D-Mich., the panel's chairman, has not expressed a strong view on the issue. But he disparaged last year's bill, and has said he will move this year's version out of loyalty to a Democratic President. Aides said he advised Mr. Riley last week to prepare to compromise.

"I think Mr. Ford didn't realize the depth of feeling'' on the part of other committee Democrats, one aide said.

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