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Budget Plan Approved; Tax-Break Debate Set

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The Senate approved its budget blueprint for fiscal 1999 late last week, after rejecting attempts by Democrats to restore some funding for their education priorities, including school construction.

The Senate passed a nonbinding, five-year budget resolution 57-41 last Thursday night after voting against considering proposed amendments by Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill., to add $22 billion for school construction, and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to increase the budget authority to provide additional funding for school reform programs in impoverished urban and rural areas.

The school construction plan is set to come up again later this month when the Senate takes up a controversial bill on tax-free education savings accounts.

The chamber plans to reconvene April 20 and tackle a range of education issues as it considers a measure offered by Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga. The proposal would allow parents and other individuals and businesses to invest up to $2,000 a year, tax free, in accounts that could be used for a broad range of K-12 education expenses. ("Debate on Tax-Free Accounts Held Over Again," April 1, 1998.)

That same week, House members are expected to revisit a proposal to issue tuition vouchers for low-income students in the District of Columbia.

President Clinton has vowed to veto Sen. Coverdell's savings-account plan, but several proposed amendments could make the measure much more palatable to Democrats.

Under a deal drafted March 27 with Democratic leaders, senators will vote on 17 possible amendments to Mr. Coverdell's proposal. Of the amendments, 12 will come from Democrats and five from Republicans. Most of the amendments were still being written as Congress left town at the end of last week for a two-week recess.

The range of proposals reads like a highlights list of both parties' education platforms in the past year.

An anticipated gop amendment from Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., would shift most federal education programs from targeted, discretionary grants to block grants, with few restrictions on how states and districts could spend the money. The Senate passed a similar amendment to last year's appropriations bill, but the language was later removed.2

The National PTA is opposing Sen. Coverdell's savings-account measure, which is likely to pass the Senate, because only a small group of wealthy parents would have the money to open such accounts, according to Shirley Igo, the group's vice president for legislation. "This tax plan benefits private and parochial schools, but does nothing for public education," she argued.

Advocates for the plan point out the wide array of educational expenses for which the funds could be used, including transportation, home computers, tutoring, and school uniforms.

Nina Shockeii, a policy analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, disputed that only the wealthy would take advantage of the plan, pointing out that parents earning more than $95,000 a year would be ineligible. And parents of public school students are likely to take advantage of the plan, Ms. Shockeii said. "If they are satisfied with that education, this will only encourage them to invest in public education," she said.

Sen. Gorton's block grant amendment is still being drafted, but will likely resemble the plan he offered as an amendment to last year's Senate appropriations bill, said his press secretary, Cynthia Bergman. Despite the bipartisan compromise on amendments, Ms. Bergman added that Mr. Gorton has not decided definitely whether he will offer an amendment.

Democrats and four other Republicans also lined up to offer education-related amendments, from a dropout-prevention plan to a proposal to increase special education spending by $692 million over 10 years. Several Democratic amendments will mirror President Clinton's education agenda, including his proposals to create after-school programs and hire 100,000 new teachers, as well as a resolution stating that the Senate considers reducing class sizes a priority.

Hot Debate

"It'll be a big debate on education, and we're going to see some really big differences," said Adele Robinson, a senior professional associate for the 2.3 million-member National Education Association.

"The day they start debating this, if anyone's interested in education, that's the day to watch C-Span," Ms. Shockeii added.

Other amendments likely to be debated include:

  • A move to help schools pay the interest on about $22 billion in construction bonds, proposed by Sen. Moseley-Braun;
  • A measure by Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla., to give half of any funding increase for the $335 million Eisenhower Professional Development Program to states that have set up teacher-assessment systems and award pay based on merit; and
  • A special education amendment by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., which lobbyists believe would allow states and districts to create their own discipline policies for disabled students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Sen. Gregg's office did not return calls regarding the amendment.

D.C. Vouchers Revisited

The savings-account amendments will likely not be the only education-related debate on Capitol Hill later this month. The week it returns from its break, the House plans to vote on creating so-called student-opportunity scholarships, which would give vouchers of up to $3,200 for private school and out-of-district public school tuition and tutoring assistance to about 2,000 low-income children in the District of Columbia.

Supporters of the measure, including its chief sponsor, Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, say vouchers are needed because the capital city's school administration is overly bureaucratic and its students' standardized-test scores are dismal.

In an unusual gathering in Washington last week, a group of black ministers joined representatives of the liberal People for the American Way and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city's nonvoting, Democratic representative in the House, to protest both the savings-accounts plan and the voucher proposal.

At a spirited news conference, more than a dozen members of the recently formed African American Ministers Leadership Council, a branch of People for the American Way, vowed to defeat the education savings accounts and any voucher proposal that rears its head in Congress.

"You can tell Coverdell we're going to take care of him after a while, and his days are numbered," said Rev. Timothy McDonald III of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta.

Ms. Norton later told reporters that she believes the District of Columbia voucher proposal stands a good chance of passage, but that she is confident President Clinton will veto the bill.

In other action last week, the House approved a supplemental spending plan that would reduce the fiscal 1998 bilingual education appropriation by $75 million to $124 million. When they return later this month, House and Senate negotiators will work out compromise language on the measure.

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