Chapter 1 Formula Slows E.S.E.A. Agreement
House and Senate conferees were nearing a compromise late last week on legislation to revamp the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which would authorize more than $12 billion a year for most major federal programs in K-12 education.
The Senate bill would shift more money to schools with the most poor children, and cut some relatively affluent schools out of the program. In contrast, the House version would retain the current formula, and employ a new one, tilted toward high-poverty schools, only for appropriations beyond the current funding level.
House members told the senators bluntly that a more radical funding shift would not pass in their 435-member chamber, where each representative is concerned with the impact on a particular district.
"The day you quit playing that kind of politics for the kids you lose," said Rep. William D. Ford, D-Mich., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. "I go back to get a majority of 435."
"There isn't going to be any great intellectual debate on that floor about concentration, equalization, or what's right. That's bunk out there," Mr. Ford said.
Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., suggested House members would also be less apt to support higher appropriations for the program if they adopted the Senate formula.
A Formulaic Deadlock
Three House conferees, however, supported Senate provisions that would channel additional funding to states that are moving toward school-finance equalization and states that spend a greater percentage of their per-capita income on education.
Aides were working late last week to come up with a compromise, and House conferees proposed further targeting concentration grants, which already go to high-poverty schools.
Conferees had hoped to complete action by late last week and take a conference report to the floor this week. The programs authorized by the E.S.E.A. will expire Sept. 30 unless a final bill or a continuing resolution is passed.
Congress is scheduled to adjourn Oct. 12. But with the fall campaign season underway, some lawmakers are pushing for an earlier departure.
And the Chapter 1 formula is not the only obstacle to an agreement.
Both bills require states and districts to set content and performance standards as part of school-improvement plans in exchange for receiving Chapter 1 money. But the House bill would also require states to develop "opportunity to learn" standards for Chapter 1 schools. The Senate bill simply asks states to describe how they will help schools meet the performance standards.
Rep. Major R. Owens, D-N.Y., a prominent supporter of opportunity standards, proposed a compromise that would allow states to follow the language in either bill.
Guns and Mandates
Conferees were also deadlocked over Senate language requiring schools receiving E.S.E.A. funds to expel for a year students caught with guns. The House bill would require districts to set gun policies. House conferees voted 19 to 7 against adopting the Senate language.
"This may be the rock that holds up the boat," Mr. Ford commented.
In addition, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., was insisting on language stating that nothing in the bill "could be construed as an unfunded mandate" on states or districts. Such a provision could lead to extended debate over whether such provisions as standards-setting requirements were supported by the funding provided under the bill.
Mr. Ford adamantly opposed the language, calling it an attempt by Republicans to score political points, and challenged Mr. Gregg to point out a specific mandate that he considers problematic.
"I will not consider language that creates a fiction," Mr. Ford said. "I will be glad to solve any real existing problem."
"If it fails, we'll have a lot of problems down the road with this bill in both houses," Mr. Gregg said, indicating that this might prompt some Republicans to oppose the E.S.E.A. bill.
Conferees must also decide whether to include provisions earmarking some Chapter 1 funds for teacher professional development and parent-involvement programs.
The negotiators did reach some agreements last week.
The House bill included language barring E.S.E.A. funding to districts that prohibit "constitutionally protected prayer" in schools, while the Senate bill would bar funding to districts that violate court orders regarding constitutionally protected prayer.
Despite a 369-to-55 vote on the House floor instructing them to support the House language, House conferees voted 18 to 11 to accept the Senate provision.
Some Agreements Reached
The conferees also worked out a compromise on language that would bar E.S.E.A. funding for programs that promote homosexuality as a "positive lifestyle alternative," distribute "obscene materials," or purchase condoms for distribution in schools. It also requires any sex-education programs funded under the bill to promote abstinence.
Conferees also agreed to:
- Retain a provision in the House bill allowing schools to use Chapter 1 funds for public-school-choice programs for Chapter 1 students. However, language allowing schools to use other federal funds for such a purpose was removed.
- Amend a provision of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act to extend from 10 days to 45 days the amount of time a disabled student could be suspended for violent behavior and placed in an alternative educational setting. The Senate bill would have extended the period to 90 days.
- Remove a Senate provision that would allow the Secretary of Education to waive certain civil-rights rules so that 10 districts could establish single-sex schools.
- Set at three years the length of time a student can settle in one school and stay eligible for Chapter 1 migrant-education programs.
Aides had worked out agreements on most of the massive bill's provisions prior to the conference, but conferees had not formally ratified some of them and the language was not available last week.