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In Political Season, 'Social Issue' Add-Ons Bulk Up E.S.E.A.

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Washington

When language restricting the availability of "dial-a-porn" telephone services threatened passage of the major K-12 education bill in 1988, Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins, D-Calif., declared: "This is a vicious system of legislating."

Mr. Hawkins, who retired in 1990, might have been even more displeased with the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was larded with multiple "social issue" amendments.

Against the backdrop of a fierce campaign season, members of Congress added language to the bill relating to gun possession in schools, school prayer, condom distribution, and sex education.

Such issues took up more than half the time lawmakers spent in a weeklong House-Senate conference and threatened to derail the bill, which was signed by President Clinton last week. (See related story.)

While they are associated with schools and children, the amendments have little to do with the substance of the legislation, critics say.

However, when popular bills are held up until the end of a session, members often use them to score political points back home--or hold them hostage to secure passage of an unrelated provision.

"It seemed at times all we heard from were those politicians that neatly crafted their small provisions into this 900-page bill, and we heard it from both sides" of the aisle, said Arnold F. Fege, the director of government relations for the National PTA.

And while the 1988 dial-a-porn provision, which was sponsored by Sen. Jesse A. Helms, R-N.C., was subsequently found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, some of this year's amendments may have consequences for schools.

Social Amendments

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was the sponsor of a "zero tolerance" policy for youngsters who bring guns to school, attaching a provision to the Senate version of the E.S.E.A. bill that would deny federal money to districts that do not expel such students for one year. Ms. Feinstein, who is facing a tough re-election fight, has touted the measure in her television ads.

In conference, a fellow California Democrat, Rep. George Miller--usually among the House's most liberal members--was the gun provision's chief cheerleader. The conference chairmen retained the amendment, even though they and other panel members opposed it.

Supporters have "the votes in the Senate," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, said at the conference. "With all due respect, we're locked into it."

Especially during a campaign season, members are reluctant to publicly vote against amendments that represent hot-button issues for some voters. Therefore, it is typical for Congressional leaders to quietly drop such language in conference, or to modify it if their political calculus indicates the bill will not pass without it.

In this case, conferees added language allowing school administrators to "modify" the expulsion policy on a case-by-case basis.

The practical effect is to require states to pass laws mandating a one-year-expulsion policy, and to make districts state in their applications for E.S.E.A. money that they have such policies--although they may waive the rules.

Nonetheless, Rep. Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, the House Education and Labor Committee's ranking Republican, argued vehemently that the provision usurps local authority and said it helped solidify his vote against HR 6.

Prayer and Sex Education

Senator Helms, a frequent proponent of social-issue riders, has sought to add prayer language to education bills for years. This year, he was partially successful.

The Senate had added his language--banning federal funding for districts that do not allow "constitutionally protected" prayer in schools--to its E.S.E.A. bill. While it was not in the House bill, a whopping majority of House Democrats urged the conferees to retain it. (See Education Week, Sept. 28, 1994.)

But the conferees instead adopted a compromise, drafted by Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, R-Kan., that bans aid to schools that defy court orders on prayer.

Observers noted that schools would be unlikely to defy such an order, and this language does not require school officials to determine what kind of prayer is constitutional, as critics said the Helms language would.

However, a motion on the House floor to demand restoration of the Helms language threatened to sink the bill. It took some muscle from the Clinton Administration and Congressional leaders to defeat the motion.

Conferees were also forced to come up with compromise language on sex education.

The House bill would have required school districts that use E.S.E.A. dollars for sex education to stress abstinence. They would also have been prevented from using such money "to carry out a program or activity that has either the purpose or effect of encouraging or supporting homosexuality as a positive lifestyle alternative."

A 'Worrisome' Trend?

This language generated heated debate, during which Rep. Robert K. Dornan, R-Calif., asked Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis., whether or not he was "in the closet." Mr. Gunderson, who opposed the provision, has tacitly acknowledged that he is gay.

Conferees--who included Mr. Gunderson--adopted alternative language barring schools from using E.S.E.A. money to "promote or encourage sexual activity, whether heterosexual or homosexual," or to "operate a program of condom distribution in schools."

While most E.S.E.A. money is narrowly categorized, funds from the Chapter 2 block grant can be spent on almost anything. In addition, schools that receive impact aid--intended to compensate them for taxes lost due to the presence of federal property--could be asked to prove that the aid did not pay for prohibited programs.

Lobbyists, Administration officials, and Congressional aides say the campaign season, as well as the public prominence of some of these social issues, prompts members of Congress to address them.

Others suggest that with a Democrat in the White House, Republicans may be more prone to force votes on controversial issues, while members of Mr. Clinton's party may believe their amendments would be less likely to provoke a veto from a Democrat.

But most observers agree that Congress will not retreat from this type of legislating.

"The trend is worrisome, and they don't seem able to control themselves," said Bruce Hunter, a senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "This Congress has been more willing than ever to be the county council, the mayor's office, or the school board, and less willing to be the Congress."

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