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Senate Panel Approves Clinton's 'Goals 2000' Bill

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WASHINGTON--The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee last week approved the Clinton Administration's education-reform legislation by a 14-to-3 vote, with four Republicans joining all of the panel's Democrats in supporting the bill.

But the panel deferred action on a section of the bill that would establish a national board to help set occupational-skills standards, and senators from both parties signaled their intention to offer floor amendments on other sections.

The proposed "goals 2000: educate America act'' would formally authorize the National Education Goals Panel, establish a federal role in developing national education standards and assessments, and create a grant program to support state and local reforms.

Under the bill, states could submit their own standards for curriculum content, student performance, and school services to a new National Education Standards and Improvement Council for certification. The council would also certify voluntary national standards in those areas, subject to review by the goals panel.

The most contentious issue has been how extensive federal mandates in the area of standards-setting should be.

Some Democrats have tried to strengthen the standards for the services that schools provide, known as opportunity-to-learn standards. (See related story, this page.)

But governors and Congressional Republicans have argued that the bill would create too great a federal role, possibly leading to a national curriculum and national mandates for financial equity.

Republicans are particularly concerned about amendments added by the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education, which approved the goals 2000 bill on May 6. One provision would require states to put in place opportunity-to-learn standards before their assessments could be certified by the board. Another would require states to establish a policy for taking "corrective action'' when school districts do not meet the opportunity standards. (See Education Week, May 12, 1993.)

The Senate version of the bill does not include those provisions. But committee Democrats last week said they would offer amendments on the floor to strengthen equity requirements.

Broader Mandates in E.S.E.A.?

Democrats also called for consideration of even broader equity mandates when the panel takes up reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. They demanded that the committee hold hearings and commission research on the issue of financial equity and a potential federal role in fostering it.

"I think E.S.E.A. has to have an amendment that nudges in that direction,'' said Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill.

Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., the ranking Republican on the Subcommittee on Education, Arts, and Humanities, agreed that the federal government should address the issue.

"If we are going to be ordering things,'' he said, Congress should provide funds to carry out the mandates.

Meanwhile, other G.O.P. panelists, even those who voted for the goals 2000 bill, called the bill too prescriptive and said they would offer amendments to weaken its mandates.

"I'm concerned this will support development of a national curriculum,'' said Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., adding that decisions on what services schools provide "should be left to the local community.''

Democrats had already agreed to give states and districts more flexibility in drafting their reform plans by removing some language in the bill that had listed specific items that would be required.

Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, R-Kan., the committee's ranking Republican, praised the Administration for "accommodating'' concerns about that section by reducing 12 "wordy'' pages to four.

Most observers predicted that the Senate would approve a version of the bill less prescriptive than the House version and closer to the Administration's original proposal. Senators are also expected to leave intact the section establishing the goals panel, while some House Democrats plan to propose amendments to change the panel's composition and limit its authority.

Concerns About Skills Board

Meanwhile, the staffs of both the Senate panel and the House Education and Labor Committee continued negotiations on the skills-standards provisions. House aides said a tentative agreement had been reached to amend the section, rather than strip it from the bill, when the legislation is considered by the full committee, possibly as early as this week.

House members have expressed concern about the composition of the board, who would chair it, and the process for making appointments.

Of the business, labor, and education representatives who would serve on the board, half would be appointed by the President and half by Congress, based on the recommendations of the majority and minority leaders in both houses.

Rep. Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, the ranking minority member on the committee, warned that the "board could be so politically put together that it would paralyze the whole effort.''

Republicans on the panel also question whether all of the employee seats on the board should be reserved for labor-union representatives. And members on both sides of the aisle have suggested that at least half of the education seats be reserved for community-college representatives.

The business community also has been pushing for a majority of board seats and for the chairman to be a business leader, at least at first.

Negotiations were also continuing on the duties of the board and how the process of developing skills standards would work.

Legislators want the board to serve as a catalyst in the development of skills standards, rather than draft standards itself. But they disagree about whether the board should actually endorse the standards, or simply confirm that industry-led coalitions have followed the criteria and guidelines set by the board.

The bill would also authorize the Labor Department to award skills-standards grants to accomplish the board's work. That provision is being contested by the vocational-education community, which believes the responsibility should be shared by the Labor and Education departments.

Senate aides said many of the same concerns had surfaced among their members. In addition, negotiations continued over how to draft language to insure that the board's work complies with existing civil-rights and equal-opportunity laws.

Specter of 'Norming'

In two separate hearings on skills standards--before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee on May 14 and the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education last week--lawyers and testing experts cautioned that some civil-rights provisions in the bill may have gone too far.

The bill would require that assessments and certificates related to the skills standards be verified for effectiveness, validity, reliability, and "fairness.'' Some witnesses said the latter could lead to the scientifically questionable practice of "norming,'' in which scores are adjusted to insure equal passage rates for all groups. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 specifically prohibits employers from using such score adjustments.

Lawrence Z. Lorber, an employment lawyer who was chief counsel to the Business Roundtable during the debate over the 1991 act, also said a proposed amendment that would prohibit employers from using the skills standards in court to defend their hiring decisions could have a chilling effect on the use of such standards.

A key Senate aide said committee members hope to reach a consensus on the skills provisions in time to approve them this week, so that they can be added to the rest of the bill when it is considered on the floor.

Three-Tiered System

At the hearings, Marc S. Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, called for a three-tiered, interlocking system of standards and assessments.

The first tier would be a standard of high academic mastery for all 16-year-olds, to be developed by the proposed National Education Standards and Improvement Council.

The second tier would consist of no more than 20 skills standards, covering broad clusters of occupations, to be set by the proposed skills-standards board. A third tier of standards would prepare employees for particular specialties. The government would not play a role in the development of such standards.

Mr. Tucker said the board's work was crucial to insure that all of the standards were compatible and covered most workers.

Without a national body "chartered to convene, encourage, and enable the industry-led development of standards, we run the very serious and sobering risk that we will end up with many industry systems that do not talk to each other systematically nor to the various stakeholders who have a genuine interest in the standards,'' agreed Cheryl Tyler Fields, the director of a skills- standards project for the American Electronics Association.

During the Senate hearing, the General Accounting Office also presented testimony based on a new study of eight industry-led standards and certification systems.

According to Linda G. Morra, the director of education and employment issues for the G.A.O., all of the systems it studied shared common elements: industry ownership and control; recertification requirements; national portability of credentials; and integration of industry standards with education providers through an accreditation program.

The study cited a number of obstacles to the development of skills standards, including the high cost of developing them, the time required for their acceptance, and the difficulties in bringing together all stakeholders.

Ms. Morra seconded many of the activities proposed for the board, such as developing a clearinghouse and facilitating stakeholder coalitions.

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