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Down to Work:Congress Sets A New Course

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Before Republicans won control of Congress in the November elections, 1995 was expected to be a low-key year for education legislation. But the G.O.P. landslide swept away that scenario.

The 103rd Congress that adjourned last month enacted a series of major education bills. Only vocational-education programs and some discretionary special-education programs were scheduled for reauthorization this year.

Now, even that relatively routine work may be put off as the Republican leaders who gained power last week in the new 104th Congress advance an agenda that focuses primarily on cutting programs and downsizing government.

The G.O.P. priority list--laid out by the aggressive new House leadership in its "Contract With America"--includes a few ideas with implications for education, such as a sweeping welfare-reform plan and a balanced-budget amendment, which could imperil federal education funding.

But the Republicans have also signaled that they plan to reconsider many existing programs. They have already put proposals on the table to revamp and consolidate job-training and social-service programs.

Moreover, they may try to repeal or amend much of the education legislation enacted in the past two years by the Clinton Administration and its Democratic allies in Congress.

And many education programs that are retained may face budget cuts in a year when some lawmakers intent on reducing the size of the federal government are again talking about eliminating the Education Department. (See related story)

Observers say the new political landscape also improves the outlook for longstanding conservative efforts to enact legislation favoring school prayer and vouchers that allow children to attend private schools at public expense.

(See education legislation he is helping draft for the G.O.P., he spoke of demolition rather than construction.

Mr. Finn, an assistant secretary of education during the Reagan Administration, said the measure he is working on will be known as the "A.B.C." bill, after the initials of three men heading the effort at the behest of the new Speaker of the House, Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.: former Secretaries of Education Lamar Alexander and William J. Bennett and Sen. Daniel R. Coats, R-Ind.

He said the legislation will have three primary themes: repealing the Goals 2000: Educate America Act and some provisions of the recently reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act; cutting programs and downsizing the Education Department; and turning over many of the remaining federal K-12 programs to the states, probably by replacing them with block grants.

In particular, Mr. Finn contended, the standards-setting requirements included in Goals 2000 and the E.S.E.A. add an unhealthy element of federal control of education.

That is an attitude that is shared by many Republicans on Capitol Hill. While the strategy purports to be voluntary and calls on states to adopt their own standards, critics say federal officials' power to approve state plans under Goals 2000 and E.S.E.A. requirements that states set standards to receive Title I money make it coercive. Goals 2000 also asks states to adopt "opportunity to learn" standards or strategies, an idea Republicans vigorously opposed.

"Some people believe that's part of an elaborate act of seduction after which you marry someone you never fell in love with," said Mr. Finn. "What happens when Dick Riley is replaced by Godzilla?"

The National Education Standards and Improvement Council may be the first victim. The council, established by the Goals 2000 law to approve model national standards and state standards offered voluntarily for review, is seen by some as a potential "national school board." (See related story )

Financial Aid: The Clinton Administration may also face a battle to maintain support for two new higher-education programs.

Some members of Congress, including Mr. Goodling and Ms. Kassebaum, are skeptical of the Education Department's ability to run the new direct-lending program, and some observers predict that Congress will take action to restrict its growth.

Others question the need for the Corporation for National and Community Service, the quasi-private agency that administers national-service grants.

In addition, the Contract With America calls for eliminating the interest subsidies the federal government pays on student loans while students remain in school.

The Administration appears to have put on hold its idea of a second phase of higher-education reform in light of the Republican takeover. Any such legislation would likely focus on better coordination of existing programs and providing regulatory relief.

Welfare and Nutrition: House Republicans are expected to proceed quickly on a series of proposals to cut welfare and consolidate several social programs into block grants.

The welfare plan outlined in the Contract with America would set strict new work requirements and time limits on benefits.

It would also cut most aid to noncitizens and end welfare for children born to young unwed mothers, children whose paternity is not established, and additional children born to mothers on welfare. (See Education Week, 12/04/94.)

The contract also outlined plans to turn many entitlement programs into discretionary programs with fixed limits on growth and to merge several food programs--including those supporting school meals--into a block grant.

Draft documents circulated by House Republicans since then also sketch out proposals to consolidate programs in seven other categories: child welfare and child abuse, child care, employment and training, social services, housing, and health.

Under the block grants, states would get less money than they get now to run all the programs separately and would be subject to fewer federal regulations.

Child-care advocates are concerned that the proposals could take away the guarantee of child-care help for mothers trying to get off welfare, limit access to services, and jeopardize program safety and quality.

However, it might give education groups a second chance to argue for directing more aid to school-based child care, a battle they waged unsuccessfully when the existing child-care block grant was passed several years ago.

Child advocates also fear that consolidating food programs would make it harder for poor children in schools, Head Start centers, and child-care programs to get subsidized meals.

Current programs provide federal funding for each child whose family income qualifies him for a free or reduced-price meal, and also subsidize general program costs. If that funding is cut, advocates say, some needy children will no longer get free meals, and some schools may be forced to shut down their food-service programs entirely.

The fate of the House's welfare and block-grant proposals in the Senate, meanwhile, remains uncertain. Senate G.O.P. leaders have also highlighted welfare reform as a priority, but have not outlined details.

Senator Kassebaum has introduced a proposal that would turn responsibility for most welfare programs over to states while the federal government took over much of the Medicaid program. She is also working on a companion bill that would consolidate and streamline child-care programs.

The new Senate minority leader, Sen. Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., unveiled a list of legislative priorities last week that includes reforms and consolidations in job training and a teenage-pregnancy-prevention measure that would place new restrictions on young mothers on welfare, including a requirement that they complete high school.

President Clinton, who offered his own welfare plan last summer, is expected to hold a White House conference this month to seek input on welfare reform from governors, mayors, and Congressional leaders.

School Prayer: Shortly after the Nov. 8 elections, House Republicans pledged a vote by July 4 on an amendment to the U.S. Constitution permitting prayer in public schools. That vote is to be preceded by hearings on the issue held around the country.

The announcement prompted President Clinton to reiterate his support for voluntary prayer in schools, and he said he would consider the G.O.P. proposal.

But Administration officials quickly clarified that Mr. Clinton was willing to consider not a constitutional amendment, but legislation that would expand prayer rights without violating U.S. Supreme Court rulings that organized prayer in schools is unconstitutional. (See Education Week, 11/23/94.)

It is unclear whether supporters can enact a constitutional amendment--which must pass by two-thirds votes in both the House and Senate and be ratified by legislatures in three-fourths of the states.

School Choice: Federal funding for private school choice, another longtime goal of many conservatives, may be in reach this year.

The idea appears to have gained some momentum. In 1992, a proposal to authorize $30 million for six local demonstration programs that would provide low-income families with federal vouchers that they could redeem at public or private schools gained only 39 votes in the Senate. Early last year, a similar provision garnered 42 votes.

Later in 1994, 45 senators voted for a demonstration program that would have allowed some Title I students to direct their share of aid under the compensatory-education program to any school. Meanwhile, House and Senate conferees agreed to an unprecedented E.S.E.A. provision that allows Title I students to move between public Title I schools if all schools involved agree.

Combine that momentum with the Republican takeover of Congress, observers say, and chances are high that some type of voucher program will be enacted.

Charter schools, which are approved by public authorities but are exempt from many regulations, have been widely viewed as a less radical alternative, and a grant program supporting them was included in the E.S.E.A. last year.

Some observers say that in the rush to enact choice legislation, charter schools could be orphaned. The biggest champion of such schools, Sen. Dave Durenburger, R-Minn., has retired.

Vocational Education: The Carl D. Perkins Applied and Vocational Education Act is scheduled to be reauthorized this year. But it is possible that Congress may eliminate the program as a separate entity and instead merge vocational education into a broader workforce-development bill. (See Education Week, 12/07/94.)

Representative Goodling has introduced legislation that would merge some 86 job-training programs, including the Perkins Act, into seven block grants.

Senator Kassebaum has also introduced a consolidation bill, which would give states more control of current programs and establish a commission to recommend a more efficient setup.

She has made the issue the first matter her committee is to take up. Hearings are scheduled for this week.

It appears likely that Democrats will go along with this idea. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the ranking Democrat on the Labor and Human Resources Committee and its former chairman, has introduced a consolidation bill himself.

President Clinton, meanwhile, as part of his so-called "Middle-Class Bill of Rights," has pledged to abolish 60 employment and training programs and provide job-training vouchers of up to $3,000 to eligible workers and students.

It is unclear whether the Administration's School-to-Work Opportunities Act might fall victim to consolidation fever, but conservative lawmakers strongly opposed provisions that established a national skills-standards board to set benchmarks for occupational training.

Special Education: Some of the programs included in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, such as the program serving infants and toddlers and various grants for training and research, also expire this year.

But many observers think lawmakers may put off reauthorizing them until next year.

Some of the uncertainty surrounding the I.D.E.A. stems from the fact that the Republicans abolished the House subcommittee that traditionally handled the law.

The largest grant program in the law, which provides basic grants to help pay the cost of special education, is permanently authorized, further lessening the incentive to take up the issue in what is shaping up to be a busy year.

Lawmakers also might wish to avoid raising thorny issues. Abolishing unfunded federal mandates has become part of the G.O.P. rallying cry, and the I.D.E.A. fits that description.

When Congress passed the legislation in 1975, guaranteeing all disabled children a "free, appropriate public education," lawmakers pledged to bear up to 40 percent of the cost of special-education programs, but actual federal-funding levels have never exceeded 12 percent.

S 1, a bill introduced last week that aims to make it more difficult for Congress to enact unfunded mandates, would exempt laws, regulations, or resolutions "that prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability status." An aide to Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, R-Idaho, the sponsor of the legislation, said opinions differ on Capitol Hill as to whether the I.D.E.A. would fall under such an exemption.

Most observers say it is unlikely that lawmakers would repeal the law's basic guarantee, although a set of policy recommendations published last month by the Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative think tank, included a call to do just that. (See Education Week, 12/07/94.)

If lawmakers do take up the law, aides on both sides of the aisle predict that they would require states to offer mediation as an option to parents and schools in disputes over disabled children's placement. They are also likely to give school officials more flexibility to remove a disruptive or dangerous child from the classroom, and increase the law's emphasis on the academic performance of students with disabilities.

Health Care: The chances of the new Congress passing a health-care-reform package that insures universal coverage for all Americans are slim to none, observers say.

Instead, Republican leaders are leaning towards a scaled-down health-care bill that would require insurance reform and offer coverage for poor children.

Federal support for school health clinics is still possible, Congressional aides said. But both the Democratic and Republican leaders are interested in consolidating federal programs, not creating new ones. Observers also expect an overhaul in federal funding for sex-education and health-education programs. (See related story )

Health-care legislation is not a priority of the Republican leadership and is unlikely to come up early in the session. Senator Daschle, the Democratic leader, however, said a limited version of health-care reform is one of his priorities.

Crime Prevention: The omnibus crime bill that passed last year will likely be supplanted by a Republican bill that is strong on punishment and light on prevention.

A priority issue for the new leadership, House and Senate Republicans introduced their crime bills the day they took control of Congress last week.

The "taking back our streets" act included in the Contract With America calls for authorizing $10.5 billion for prison construction, local law enforcement, and "truth in sentencing" guidelines.

While crime-prevention programs account for 23 percent of the funding authorized by the 1994 law, the Democratic Study Group estimates, only 6 percent of the Republican measures are devoted to that purpose.

Some of the vulnerable programs include youth-employment and mentoring projects in high-crime areas,(See education programs for youths, and peer supervision of drug offenders through drug courts.

Assistant Editor Deborah L. Cohen and Staff Writers Jessica Portner and Lynn Schnaiberg also contributed to this report.

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