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Riley, Reich Unveil Reform Bill -- And Win Welcome in Congress

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WASHINGTON--After weeks of negotiations with members of Congress, education groups, and the National Governors' Association, the Clinton Administration last week unveiled a new version of its education-reform bill.

In retooling the proposed "goals 2000: educate America act,'' the Administration aimed to satisfy House Democrats' desire for stronger measures to increase equity among schools--without creating the kinds of onerous federal mandates that worry other lawmakers and the governors.

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley testified before the House elementary and secondary education subcommittee last week, and the congenial tone of the discussion appeared to bode well for the compromise bill.

"We'll have a majority of [Education and Labor Committee] Democrats co-sponsoring the bill,'' Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., the subcommittee chairman, said after the hearing. "There may still be attempts to strengthen it, but many are willing to sign on now, and that's a good clue as to where we are.''

"We're close to getting some Republican co-sponsors, too,'' he added.

The legislation--President Clinton's first major initiative in K-12 education--would codify the national education goals, establish a federal role in developing a national system of standards and assessments, and create a grant program to support implementation of state and local education-reform plans.

The bill would also set up a National Skill Standards Board that would help develop standards for workers in particular occupations, a proposal that aims to provide a training credential for young people who do not attend college.

The bill would authorize $393 million in fiscal 1994 spending for the school-reform grant program, $15 million for the skills board, and $12 million for the other standards and assessment projects.

Half of the grant funds would be distributed to states based on the formula for the Chapter 1 remedial-education program; the other half would be allocated based on school-age population. States would be required to pass on half the funds the first year, and 85 percent in subsequent years, to school districts, with at least half the money going to schools with "special needs.''

A Balancing Act

The Administration delayed introducing the bill last month after some members of the House Education and Labor Committee raised objections. Their primary concern was that performance standards and assessments for students be balanced with equally strong standards to measure the adequacy of school services. (See Education Week, March 31, 1993.)

On the other hand, the governors--as well as some other members of Congress--have voiced fears that the national standards would give the federal government too much authority over traditionally state and local decisions and would stifle creativity in school reform.

"I am absolutely convinced that the so-called voluntary national system of skills standards and voluntary 'opportunity to learn' standards will inevitably lead, as night follows day, to a national curriculum and national funding standards,'' Rep. Marge Roukema, R-N.J., said at the hearing.

However, the supporters of strong "opportunity'' standards represent a significant bloc on the House committee, and the revised bill attempts to address their concerns, which were shared by some education groups.

As in earlier drafts, the bill would authorize a politically balanced National Education Goals Panel and a National Educational Standards and Improvement Council.

But while the earlier bill called for "model'' opportunity standards to be drafted by a separate, shorter-lived panel, the new version calls for the council to approve voluntary national opportunity standards, as well as voluntary national standards for curriculum and student performance.

The council would also certify state standards that are "comparable'' to the national standards, as well as state assessment systems to measure students' progress against the standards. The goals panel would review those decisions.

Other Equity Concerns

The Administration also made numerous small revisions to the structure and language of the bill to place the opportunity standards on the same footing as the academic standards, and added other provisions to assuage equity concerns.

For example, a new section would require state plans to provide for equal access to curricular materials and professional development by all school districts, and to guarantee help to students, schools, and districts that do not meet standards.

But the House Democrats had wanted a guarantee that no state could use "high stakes'' assessments developed through the reform process without also establishing and enforcing opportunity standards, and the bill does not go that far.

While the states would be required to include in their reform plans commitments to develop both kinds of standards, individual states would determine the timetable. The bill would bar the standards council and the goals panel from certifying assessments that would be used to make decisions on graduation or grade promotion during the five-year span the bill's authorization would cover. But states could move ahead without formal certification.

There is also no guarantee that states' standards would be as high as the voluntary national standards.

"Every state is different; every state's population is different; and every state is in a different place in terms of bringing that state's academic achievement up,'' Mr. Riley said last week. "We want to deal with the question in a 'state' way.''

Administration officials also said repeatedly last week that they do not envision standards that directly address school finance.

Enactment Predicted

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., was the only panel member to complain that the standards did not go far enough to provide financial equity for schools "where rain comes through the ceiling.'' But Mr. Miller did not say he would oppose the bill.

Most observers predicted that the compromise would be enacted.

Capitol Hill aides said the changes are unlikely to shake support in the Senate, where Democrats have been more enthusiastic about the bill than their House counterparts have been. Any Senate opposition is seen as likely to come from conservatives opposed to a major federal role in education.

The National Governors' Association has not taken an official position, and sources close to the negotiations said the governors are concerned that the initiative may involve too much federal oversight.

But an N.G.A. representative was involved throughout the talks, and observers agreed it was unlikely that the Administration would have released the bill in a form the governors strongly opposed.

Education Lobby Signs On

With the exception of the Council of Chief State School Officers, education groups had generally been skeptical about the bill while it was being drafted. But 18 business and education associations, including all the large precollegiate groups, issued a statement of support last week.

"They listened to us as well as to the members [of Congress],'' said Bruce Hunter, the associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "I think they really wanted to build the broad-based consensus you need to create reform.''

The revisions do attempt to address the concerns of some education groups that the initiative would usurp local authority.

The new version includes a section titled "Promoting Bottom-Up Reform,'' which would require state plans to include "strategies'' for insuring that schools and districts have input into state plans, discretionary resources to pursue their own reforms, and flexibility to meet local needs.

But the bill still outlines a program that would be controlled primarily at the state level, with the approval of federal officials and the goals panel. State standards would be developed by panels appointed by chief state school officers. Local plans would have to be consistent with state plans, and state officials would allocate grant funds.

Both Mr. Riley and President Clinton were known for their work in education reform as governors, and officials said the initiative's structure was influenced by what they learned from those efforts.

Mr. Riley characterized the reform process as a "simultaneous'' effort in which "states would receive action plans from school districts and districts from schools'' at the same time states are developing their reform plans.

"That's the way reform takes place,'' he said.

House and Senate committees plan to take up the bill early next month.

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