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House Panel Approves Plan To Freeze School Aid in 1997

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Washington

Add immigration to the list of contentious items in the House spending bill for education, which passed the Appropriations Committee late last month and would freeze federal school aid in fiscal 1997.

Politically charged language would prohibit any of the money in the bill from benefiting immigrants who are living in the country illegally.

President Clinton pledged to veto the bill unless school funding is increased and certain programs are rescued from termination, such as the Goals 2000: Educate America Act.

The committee passed the bill June 25 on a 27-17 vote. It could reach the full House this week. The committee's plan would provide $25.2 billion in discretionary funds for the Department of Education for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

Two days of debate over the bill ended with a spirited exchange over education spending.

"We don't have to do what we're doing in this bill, which is abandoning children," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., who said it would take $2.6 billion more to maintain current Education Department services.

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said Republicans and Democrats are on opposite ends of a philosophical divide.

"I don't think it's the function of the federal government to educate our kids," he said. "I for one am sick and tired of the demagoguery that goes on in this place."

Immigration Questions

Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., sponsored the immigration language in the $65 billion bill, which covers the departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services. He said that court-ordered services, like a free public education for illegal-immigrant children and emergency medical services for illegal immigrants, would not be covered by the policy.

"Our purpose is to strengthen current laws to provide more initiatives for meaningful immigration reform," Mr. Riggs said.

But the Clinton administration and school advocates say they are not sure what the provision means, and they want it out.

"This provision ... is extremely vague and its intent and likely impact are both highly unclear," wrote Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley in a letter to Rep. Robert L. Livingston, R-La., the chairman of the spending panel.

While the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe ruled it unconstitutional to deny a free K-12 education to illegal immigrants, one Education Department official questioned how the ruling would apply if Rep. Riggs' amendment were adopted.

"What if the secretary gets a letter saying that someone is illegal, does that mean they get no benefits?" said Kay L. Casstevens, the assistant secretary for legislation and congressional affairs.

"First and foremost, we don't think it's wise to involve local districts in the immigration process," added Isabelle Garcia, a senior professional associate at the National Education Association.

The chairman of the House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Subcommittee, which initiated the bill, also has doubts about Mr. Riggs' amendment.

"Most staff lawyers would say this would lead to lawsuits because it does not have precise language," said Rep. John Edward Porter, R-Ill.

An amendment that would have softened the immigration restrictions and exempted K-12 students was defeated 24-23. "We ought to let these complex issues be sorted out by the committees in charge of immigration law," said Rep. Esteban E. Torres, D-Calif, who offered the amendment.

The House and Senate, in fact, are waiting to go to a conference committee over a separate pair of immigration bills. The House version would allow states to deny a free public education to illegal-immigrant students. The Senate bill does not include that language.

The presumed Republican presidential nominee, former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, said last month in California that he would back the school provision in the House immigration bill.

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