'Goals 2000' Clears First Hurdle, But Obstacles Remain
WASHINGTON--The Clinton Administration's education-reform package cleared its first legislative hurdle last week, but it was apparent that the "goals 2000: educate America act'' faces significant obstacles.
The House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education approved the bill, on a 17-to-9 party-line vote, after a spirited debate and many amendments. But the Administration and the National Governors' Association may oppose some of the revisions, and Republican senators expressed strong reservations at a separate hearing last week.
Neither the Senate hearing nor the House subcommittee even addressed concerns of lawmakers and the education and business communities about provisions calling for the development of occupational-skills standards. (See story, page 1.)
Other sections would codify the national education goals; formally authorize the National Education Goals Panel; call for national standards for curriculum content, student performance, and school services, and an assessment system; and create a grant program to support state and local reform plans. It was introduced as HR 1804 in the House and S 846 in the Senate.
Since the Administration began circulating drafts, the most controversial issue has been the status and force of "opportunity-to-learn standards,'' which are designed to measure the adequacy of school services. Some House Democrats, concerned about the impact of standards and "high stakes'' testing on disadvantaged students, have insisted that the bill include strong opportunity standards as a necessary counterweight.
Before introducing their bill, Administration officials agreed to put the opportunity standards on an equal footing with the content and performance standards. The bill calls for a National Education Standards and Improvement Council to certify voluntary national standards in each area, and to certify state standards that are "of equal or higher quality.''
The Administration also agreed that no high-stakes state assessments would be certified during the five years the bill covers.
But subcommittee Democrats sought to strengthen the provisions even further. Amendments by Rep. Major R. Owens, D-N.Y., would require states to develop opportunity standards concurrently with other standards; require them to implement opportunity standards before assessments could be certified; specify that national opportunity standards address the condition of school facilities; and require states to assess the extent to which school districts meet the standards.
"We have been willing to compromise and bring these amendments down to a minimal package,'' Mr. Owens said, "but this is the minimum.''
The amendments were approved on a voice vote, but several Republicans expressed reservations.
The bill "may be opening the door to a national standard for what a school building should be,'' Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis., said.
Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the committee's ranking Republican, warned that strong opportunity standards could dissuade states and schools from participating in the reform program, and that it could lead to a wave of finance-equity lawsuits.
"I agree with the concept that you need to have equal opportunity,'' he said, "but all I can see is the trips to court.''
The two Republicans' complaints grew stronger when Rep. John F. Reed, D-R.I., offered an amendment requiring states to establish a policy for "corrective action'' when schools fail to meet opportunity standards as a prerequisite for approval of their state plans by the U.S. Secretary of Education.
Without such a mandate, he said, "states could just take the money and do elaborate planning; then when schools don't meet the standards, just shrug their shoulders.''
The amendment passed on a 18-to-7 party-line vote.
Michael Cohen, a consultant to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, said the Administration could accept the amendment if the mandate for corrective action also applied to schools.
"The basic idea of having a strategy for dealing with schools that are failing is not a problem,'' he said.
But Republicans predicted governors would echo their opposition.
At last week's hearing of the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, Republicans told Mr. Riley that they strongly oppose even the Administration's original bill, protesting what Sen. Nancy L. Kassebaum, R-Kan., called its "overly prescriptive nature.''
"We're saying that [states] must deal with each of these components,'' Mr. Riley said in defending the bill. "How they do it is up to them.''
Some senators also complained that the bill would give states too much authority over districts, and the federal government too much authority to direct state reform efforts.
Concerns also arose last week about the composition and powers of the goals panel. Most observers thought the issue had been put to rest when lawmakers negotiated a compromise with the Bush Administration that balanced the panel politically, gave Congressional representatives voting membership, and added four state legislators.
Several Democrats last week proposed amendments that would strip the panel of some of its authority and indicated that they would propose expanding the panel to include educators, parents, or educational experts.
The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., persuaded them to wait, and pledged to try to broker an agreement.
But the subcommittee adopted by voice vote an amendment requiring that, "to the extent feasible,'' the goals panel be "geographically representative'' and reflect "racial, ethnic, and gender diversity.''
The panel also adopted an amendment increasing the amount of reform
funds states would have to pass on to school districts.