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Senate Passes Spending Bill With Block Grants

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The Senate passed a nearly $32 billion spending bill for education and other social programs last week, but Democrats and the Clinton administration were outraged by a provision in the bill that would transform most federal education funding into block grants.

S 1061, the fiscal 1998 appropriations bill for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, passed on a 92-8 vote that did not reflect partisan discord over the amendment.

The provision, sponsored by Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., would rely on $13.5 billion in block grants to pay for most elementary and secondary education programs, including the Goals 2000 school reform initiative, the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Program, educational technology programs, bilingual education, and Eisenhower Professional Development grants.

The amendment would also move 50 percent of the Senate's proposed $1.5 billion appropriation for vocational and adult education and its planned $2.6 billion appropriation for vocational rehabilitation and disability research into a block grant.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and impact-aid programs were not covered by the block-grant measure. Title I funding also would be retained as a separate program, but grants would go directly to local education agencies, a change that the Department of Education said would eliminate separate, state-run programs for migrants, neglected and delinquent students, Even Start, and Title I evaluation.

A companion appropriations bill in the House remained bogged down in debate last week. House members were expected to vote on appropriations this week. A House-Senate conference committee will then meet to work out differences between the two bills, which appropriate funds for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Control Vs. Oversight

"We want good vocational education, we want good schools, but we think parents and educators at the local level can do a better job" than the federal government, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said in explaining GOP support for the block-grant language.

But Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley later called the amendment "unacceptable to the administration," and said it "would possibly wipe out many very important programs."

Many education groups also expressed concern about block grants, which would come with few federal restrictions on state and local district spending.

"There's no guarantee that that money, once it gets to the local level, would still be spent on vocational education," said Nancy O'Brien, the assistant executive director for government relations for the American Vocational Association in Alexandria, Va.

Efforts to remove the amendment from consideration narrowly failed, 51-49, after two Republican senators changed their votes. The measure later passed by a voice vote.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said he would vote against a final appropriations bill if it included the block-grant language. He said he doubted that many senators understood the full impact of the language when the vote was taken.

A Democratic Senate aide gave the measure little hope of survival in a House-Senate conference committee, claiming that it was just a political tool for Republicans to sound off about reducing federal regulation.

Construction Aid

On an issue that has been closely watched by many school districts, the Senate also agreed to pour $100 million into school construction grants under a program sponsored by Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill. The program was authorized in 1994, but has never been funded by a Republican Congress.

Mr. Riley praised the effort, citing recent projections of record enrollments for schools in some parts of the country. "I am encouraged by any efforts by the Congress to revisit this issue within a balanced-budget framework," the secretary said.

The plan is likely to face strong resistance from the House, which has maintained that funding for school construction should remain a state and local responsibility.

"We think federal funds are better spent on other education programs,"said Elizabeth Morra, a spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee.

Although they did not pass an overall spending bill, House members voted on several amendments last week to decrease Goals 2000 funding. Another amendment would shift $55 million in Goals 2000 money to special education.

Fiscal 1997 appropriations expire Sept. 30, but most education programs are funded in advance and would not be immediately affected if a spending plan were not completed.

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