Latest Testing Compromise Appears Doomed
After eight days of intense negotiations, President Clinton's national testing proposal last week was no closer to being launched--or discarded.
Last week, House and Senate leaders brokered a deal acceptable to enough Democrats to lead them to believe they could push it through Congress and send it to Mr. Clinton. But, by Friday morning, opposition by conservative Republicans grew so intense that the House GOP met to discuss an alternative written by testing's most outspoken foe, Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa.
Neither the original compromise nor the last-minute Republican plan, however, is likely to gain the support of the Clinton administration or its Democratic supporters in the Senate.
In the end, the plan to administer tests to 4th graders in reading and 8th graders in mathematics remains in limbo until at least the end of this week. The Nov. 7 deadline for finishing work on testing and the education budget, however, may be pushed back again.
"Both sides want to be guaranteed a win," Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., said last Thursday morning. The administration wants the assurance that testing will start in the spring of 1999 while conservatives want it killed with no hope of resurrection.
At the end of last week, neither side appeared willing to budge.
Throughout the week, GOP leaders met with the senior members of the House and Senate appropriations committees to broker a testing deal. The appropriators are at the center of the debate because both chambers added testing amendments to annual spending bills for education and other social programs.
The House bill would ban all work on the testing program, but the Senate legislation would allow test development to continue under the supervision of the National Assessment Governing Board, an existing independent, nonpartisan panel. ("Compromise Is Next Step in Test Odyssey," Sept. 24, 1997.)
The House amendment drew 295 supporters, including many urban liberals, and the Senate's attracted 42 Republicans and 45 Democrats. But 37 of those Senate Republicans have since retreated from their vote and now say they support the House amendment.
The first testing compromise unveiled last week, which Mr. Obey helped negotiate, would have let the assessment board develop the tests, but would have prohibited it from administering them to students without explicit authorization from Congress.
The deal proved to be unacceptable to hard-liners on both sides.
Conservatives objected because the plan would delay a definitive decision on the testing plan's fate for at least a year and allow $16 million to be spent on the effort in the meantime.
"This becomes more of an issue of when, rather than asking the question whether there will be national testing," Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., said at the House-Senate committee meeting where the compromise was unveiled. "This is like telling them to ... lock and load, just don't fire until we say so."
The administration said it wants the issue resolved so it won't have to come back and lobby Congress, especially when Mr. Goodling, the chairman of the House education committee, is leading the campaign against the tests.
"We can't accept a provision that creates such an obvious hurdle," said Lawrence Haas, a spokesman for the president's Office of Management and Budget.
By last Thursday afternoon, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., had recruited 34 Senate Democrats to oppose the compromise. That group, which supports Mr. Clinton's position, would be enough to block an override of a presidential veto of the bill.
Playing to the Middle
The crafters of the original compromise had hoped to rely on moderates to support them to ensure the plan within underlying spending bill could work its way through Congress and present President Clinton with the decision of whether to sign it.
"We're taking the middle road here," Rep. Robert L. Livingston, R-La., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said at the Oct. 30 session where conferees approved the annual bill to pay for education, labor, and welfare programs. "I hope the middle road is sufficient to get the votes to pass both houses of Congress."
They also hoped that their generosity toward some of the president's favorite education programs would encourage him to support the overall bill, despite his reservations about testing.
But GOP opposition to the testing language grew so intense that by Friday morning Republicans met to consider an alternative.
The new plan, backed by Mr. Goodling, would ban test development unless three-fourths of the nation's governors signed letters saying they wanted the federal government to proceed. So far, only seven states have promised to participate in Mr. Clinton's testing plan.
Mr. Goodling's plan also would require the National Academy of Sciences to review all existing commercial tests to determine if they could create "an equivalency scale" to compare students' scores on them. While that may have satisfied some of testing's GOP critics, it only strengthened Sen. Bingaman's resolve.
"That's totally unacceptable," said Ken Berlack, a spokesman for the New Mexico Democrat. "This shouldn't be something that's conditional."
The administration sounded skeptical but declined to comment directly on Mr. Goodling's latest proposal.
"Our priority remains the same: to be able to go forward with testing now," said Julie Green, the press secretary for Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley.
Testing aside, the spending bill has much of what President Clinton wants from it. It abandons a proposal by Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., that would convert most K-12 programs into a block grant--a provision strongly opposed by Mr. Clinton and congressional Democrats.
The bill also includes $210 million for Mr. Clinton's initiative to improve reading instruction for young children.
Special education spending would rise $739 million, to $4.5 billion, for the budget year that began Oct. 1, and impact-aid grants would jump $78 million, to $808 million.
But Title I program grants for districts with high proportions of needy students, would stay at $7.4 billion, their fiscal 1997 level.