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Political Stakes Attached to 'Opportunity' Standards

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Some view requiring states to set "opportunity to learn'' standards in order to get federal education aid an overdue spur toward school equity. Others see a meddlesome, bureaucratic mandate threatening local control of schools.

Those arguments will be repeated many times on Capitol Hill this year, and the outcome could determine the fate of the Clinton Administration's education agenda.

If the House and the Senate cannot forge a compromise on how--and whether--to require states to set standards on school services and resources to qualify for school-reform grants, say Capitol Hill aides, lobbyists, and other observers, the Administration's proposed "goals 2000: educate America act'' will likely meet the same fate as the reform bills that died in the past two Congressional sessions.

"I think the political stakes are high for the Administration,'' said Patty Sullivan, a senior policy analyst for the National Governors' Association. "Bill Clinton ... doesn't want to lose this bill.''

Powerful Leverage

Moreover, the treatment of Goals 2000 in the House-Senate conference that is expected to begin next month will likely affect the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is also moving through Congress.

"I do think the conference on Goals 2000 will be a real foreshadowing of what we'll do with E.S.E.A.,'' said an aide to Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, R-Kan., the ranking Republican on the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.

This month, the House Education and Labor Committee added to its E.S.E.A. bill a requirement that states establish opportunity standards--which are intended to delineate the resources and services needed to enable students to achieve--as well as standards for student performance and curriculum content, in order to receive Chapter 1 money. (See Education Week, Feb. 16, 1994.)

That would be powerful leverage: The Chapter 1 compensatory-education program is the largest federal program in precollegiate education.

Republicans opposed the bill, HR 6, saying they feared an unfunded mandate that could lead to federal control of schools.

The House version of the Goals 2000 bill, HR 1804, imposes the same mandate. But Republicans accepted the provisions there because participation by states in the Clinton reform effort would be voluntary and those that declined would lose out only on some $400 million in grants, compared with the $7 billion Chapter 1 provides.

The Senate has yet to write an E.S.E.A.-reauthorization bill, but its version of Goals 2000, S 1150, clearly illustrates the Congressional division on the standards issue.

HR 1804 and S 1150 would both codify the national education goals, formally authorize the National Education Goals Panel, create new boards to set model standards for education and occupational training, and set up a grant program to support state and local reforms.

But while HR 1804 would require states to set standards to receive grants, S 1150 would not. Under the Senate bill, states would be required to address, in some fashion, students' opportunity to learn but would be free to decide how to boost equity and achievement.

An Expendable Bill?

A compromise will not be easy to construct.

Some strong supporters of the opportunity-standards idea say it is the only part of the Goals 2000 bill they are enthusiastic about, noting that the legislation originated a couple of years ago as a Democratic reworking of President Bush's America 2000 bill.

"If we were told that the bill would die without opportunity-to-learn standards, a lot of people would just shrug,'' said an aide to one House Democrat.

On the other hand, if the more prescriptive House language is retained in the version reported out of conference, many Senate supporters of S 1150--notably Ms. Kassebaum and Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt.--may balk.

The flexibility in the Senate bill is "something our members are wed to,'' said an aide to Mr. Jeffords. Mr. Jeffords and Ms. Kassebaum are seen as crucial to holding on to the 17 Republican votes S 1150 garnered on the floor this month.

The Administration--which sees Goals 2000 and its emphasis on standards as the framework for its entire education strategy--is hoping for final passage by April. If the deadline is not met, the Administration will lose $105 million appropriators earmarked for the initiative in this fiscal year.

Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith said the Administration may try to forge consensus by recognizing the need for opportunity standards but allowing states to figure out how to develop them.

"I expect if you look at different states, what you'll find is a number of states have addressed it, and they've addressed it in different ways,'' he said. "And maybe the best way for us is to acknowledge that diversity.''

A Long Debate

The concept of opportunity standards first surfaced in Congress in 1992, when they were known as "school-delivery standards.''

Lawmakers were working on a bill that was essentially a Democratic response to America 2000, and they added language reflecting a report by the National Council on Education Standards and Testing, a panel set up by Congress.

Council members were divided on whether to recommend setting such delivery standards, an idea that emerged from a task force headed by Undersecretary Smith, who was then dean of Stanford University's education school.

But liberal House members, fearing that disadvantaged students would fare poorly under a national testing system, latched onto the idea as a counterbalance.

What supporters are trying to do, observers say, is to address the issue of school-finance equity.

"We don't have a consensus in this country on the role of the federal government, or even the state government, in providing basic educational equity, and the debate over opportunity-to-learn standards is over equity,'' said Cynthia Brown, the director of the Council of Chief State School Officers' Center on Educational Equity.

And Democratic backers are loath to drop the weapon now that it is a President of their own party pushing high academic standards.

"The issue is not going to go away,'' said Diane S. Ravitch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was an education official in the Bush Administration.

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