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In debate last week on a wide-ranging telecommunications bill, the Senate rejected an effort to remove provisions that would insure affordable access for elementary and secondary schools to telecommunications networks.

An amendment proposed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., which would have deleted the school-access provisions and other related sections of the bill, was tabled on aZg_o-36 vote.

Prior to floor consideration of the bill, S 652, compromises were negotiated on several provisions, including the school-access language, to gain the support of telecommunications-industry groups.

The bill would guarantee schools and libraries telecommunications access at discounted rates. The amount of the discount would be set by state public-utility authorities and the Federal Communications Commission at a level "appropriate and necessary to insure affordable access."

The new provision also ties this guarantee to the "universal-service fund" that now helps to pay for rural access to telephone service. Telecommunications companies would be required to make contributions to the fund, which would then reimburse specific companies for the cost of providing discounted access.

Dennis L. Bybee, the associate executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education, said that the compromise benefits both the industry and schools because the provisions are more specific than they were under previous language in the bill. The original language, added to the bill in an amendment at the committee level, required access for schools at "incremental cost," terminology that Mr. Bybee said "can be interpreted to mean different things."

"It's a great day," he said. "The Senate is on record supporting affordable technology for schools."

The Senate was expected to vote on the entire bill late last week.

The counterpart bill approved by the House Commerce Committee last month, HR 1555, would not guarantee school access, but would set up a joint panel of state and federal agencies to help the f.c.c. devise ways to make telecommunications affordable for schools. A floor vote is expected this month. (See Education Week, 6/7/95.)

Religious-Freedom Amendment: A Congressional panel last week held the first in a long-awaited series of hearings on a proposed religious-freedom amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The House Judiciary Committee's Constitution subcommittee heard from constitutional and religious scholars about the merits of a proposal to rewrite the First Amendment in a way that would allow organized prayers in public schools and other religious expression that proponents contend is not adequately protected now. Proponents have not yet settled on the language of the proposed amendment.

The religious-liberty amendment is high on the agenda of religious conservatives and is included in the Christian Coalition's "contract with the American family."

"Unfortunately, despite the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution, millions of Americans today believe their freedom of religion, and of religious expression, is endangered," Rep. Ernest Jim Istook Jr., R-Okla., told the subcommittee last week.

The panel had scheduled another hearing for June 10 in Harrisonburg, Va., and plans several others this summer. On the schedule so far are hearings on June 26 in Tampa, Fla.; July 10 in New York State; and July 14 in Oklahoma City.

Tax Case Refused: The U.S. Supreme Court last week refused to get involved in a dispute over property taxes that pits several school districts and other local jurisdictions in New York State against a major commercial railroad line.

At issue in the case of North Rockland Central School District v. Consolidated Rail Corporation (Case No. 94-1776) is some $11.7 million in municipal property taxes and $4.7 million in school district property taxes assessed for the year 1993.

Conrail sued state and local authorities over New York's method of determining the value of railroad properties within the state, which Conrail contends clashes with guidelines set out in a federal railroad statute.

A federal district court issued a preliminary injunction in Conrail's favor, which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed. The High Court's refusal to consider the matter means that the disputed taxes will be held in an escrow account until the litigation is settled.

Defaults Decline: The Education Department's collection rate for defaulted student loans is up this year, and collections are expected to reach a record high of $800 million by Oct. 1, the start of the next fiscal year.

The agency has collected $560 million on defaulted loans during the first 7 -1/2 months of the current fiscal year, surpassing the $506 million collected in fiscal 1994.

Meanwhile, default levels have been dropping steadily, from $3.6 billion in fiscal 1991 to $2.4 billion last year.

Though some critics have questioned the department's ability to administer the financial-aid programs, Deputy Secretary of Education Madeleine M. Kunin noted in a statement, the improved collection rates "show conclusively that the department can protect the taxpayer's investment--and even exceed our own goals."

An Education Department official also noted that the agency's collections are increasing faster than collections for loans held by private guarantee agencies.

But Joe Clayton, a spokesman for the Coalition for Student Loan Reform, said that under the new direct-lending system being promoted by the Clinton Administration, some useful collection tools at the state level could be lost, such as guarantee agencies' ability to suspend or revoke the professional licenses of individuals in default. Many also have information-sharing agreements with state departments of revenue so defaulters' state income-tax refunds can be withheld, he added.

Higher-Education Bill: The House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee last week approved a package of higher-education provisions that would privatize the Student Loan Marketing Association, eliminate state-level agencies that monitor colleges, and terminate 70 small education programs.

Lawmakers plan to attach the higher-education measure, HR 1720, to a workforce-development bill, HR 1617. The proposed "consolidated and reformed education, employment, and rehabilitation system act" was approved by the committee last month. (See Education Week, 5/31/95.)

The privatization provisions apply to two quasi-governmental enterprises, the S.L.M.A., popularly known as Sallie Mae, and the College Construction Loan Insurance Association.

The bill would also eliminate the State Postsecondary Review Entities, which were created in the 1992 Higher Education Amendments as part of an effort to stem fraud and abuse in the student-aid system. Higher-education leaders have complained that the SPRE's impose burdensome reporting requirements on all colleges and universities, instead of targeting problem institutions.

"We are pleased and want to commend Chairman [Bill] Goodling for moving in this direction," said David Warren, the president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

The bill would also repeal 18 small education and scholarship programs that President Clinton has proposed eliminating and another 52 that were targeted for termination under the rescissions bill the President vetoed last week. (See related story .)

But the committee approved an amendment proposed by Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont., striking from the termination list the State Student Incentive Grant student-aid program.

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