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Swan song muted

Who killed the Local Empowerment and Flexibility Pilot Act?

Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, R-Ore., blames the National Education Association. The NEA suggests it might be Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind. And it turns out that Mr. Coats is happy to claim credit.

The proposed flexibility bill was to be Mr. Hatfield's swan song. The 74-year-old retiring lawmaker, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, crafted legislation that would have given six communities authority to pool funds from federal and other sources. In exchange, grantees would agree to meet performance standards.

But instead of triumphantly announcing the passage of the flexibility provision, which was based on an education-flexibility measure enacted in 1994, Mr. Hatfield could not win consensus for the bill, and it died.

"The key organization that resisted the concept of local flexibility was the National Education Association," Mr. Hatfield said. "It is not my custom to focus on any one group or individual on the Senate floor, but I cannot be silent as my commitment to education is questioned as flagrantly as it has been by the NEA."

Adele Robinson, a lobbyist for the teachers' union, said that the group worked with Mr. Hatfield's staff to improve the bill, but that its ultimate version could have produced "some serious unintended consequences" for education programs.

But Ms. Robinson praised the bill for including a specific ban on using federal dollars for voucher programs--a first, she said, noting that the ban engendered strong opposition from conservatives.

Actually, Sen. Coats took credit for spiking Mr. Hatfield's bill.

"When confronted with my amendment to protect educational choice and private and religious schools, the congressional leadership wisely decided to shelve the entire bill," Mr. Coats said in the release.

"Why have a bill that sets up a precedent forever that says Congress is accepting the concept that vouchers should not be used for private schools," asked the Rev. William Davis, the representative for Catholic schools and federal assistance for the U.S. Catholic Conference, which also opposed the bill.

--MARK PITSCHfederal@epe.org

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