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Published in Print: January 13, 1999, as Impeachment Could Color ESEA Action

Impeachment Could Color ESEA Action

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While President Clinton and Republican leaders have pledged to make education a priority issue in the 106th Congress that convened last week, the long shadow cast by the impeachment process is raising questions about whether they will deliver on their promises.

There is no way to tell what effect the Senate trial of the president might have on education legislation, but the proceedings will likely have some impact on the White House's initiatives, argued Jay Diskey, a Republican spokesman for the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

"So many of these large education initiatives need the salesmanship of Bill Clinton," he said. "Whether he'll be around is a huge question."

Most political observers, however, expect that Mr. Clinton will remain in office, and the president himself began unveiling his education agenda for the new Congress last week.

On Thursday, the day the trial formally opened, Mr. Clinton called for increased spending on after-school and other supplementary programs in schools in an effort to curb social promotions of academically unready students. He proposed spending $600 million on the programs, up from $200 million in the current fiscal year and $40 million in fiscal 1998. He plans to preview other pieces of the agenda before his State of the Union Address, scheduled for Jan. 19.

The initiatives outlined in the State of the Union speech are expected to incorporate the Department of Education's themes of teacher quality, academic standards, school construction, and community involvement in schools.

And, while some congressional lawmakers have called upon Mr. Clinton to postpone his address to a joint session of Congress until the impeachment trial is over, he had announced no plans to do so as of last week.

Senate leaders have said they hope the trial of Mr. Clinton on two articles of perjury and obstruction of justice in the Monica S. Lewinsky matter will be conducted swiftly so that the chamber can take up other business.

But key procedural questions that would affect the length and scope of the trial remained unresolved late last week. A full trial could last weeks, or even months.

ESEA Tops the List

Meanwhile, at the top of this year's to-do list for education is the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which guides the largest federal K-12 programs. The House education committee is planning to hold several overview hearings on the reauthorization this month and next month. The Senate held a preliminary hearing on early-childhood research last month, and plans to begin holding hearings late this month.

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley met last month with Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the Education and the Workforce Committee, and Sen. James M. Jeffords, the Republican from Vermont who chairs the Labor and Human Resources Committee, to discuss the Education Department's ESEA proposal. That plan is scheduled to be announced this spring.

Joe Karpinski, a spokesman for the Republican majority on the Labor and Human Resources Committee, which will oversee the ESEA legislation in the Senate, said the impeachment trial would likely have no effect on the committee's schedule. "There's no reason the day-to-day operations should be held up because of this," he said.

Moreover, the White House usually takes several weeks or months to write legislation for new education initiatives announced in the president's budget or the State of the Union speech. "The real meat is when they send their legislative proposal," Mr. Karpinski said. "This administration does not move swiftly when it comes to presenting legislation."

Predicting the Impact

The reauthorization--the first since Republicans assumed control of Congress in 1995--presents an opportunity to make the kinds of major changes in programs such as Title I aid for disadvantaged students and President Clinton's Goals 2000: Educate America Act that some conservatives, in particular, have been waiting for.

Some observers here who favor such changes, such as channeling funding in the form of block grants or vouchers, worry that the impeachment-trial proceedings could help derail such amendments.

Nina Shokraii Rees, an education-policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, predicted that the ESEA legislation will be significantly delayed, and that it will not receive the attention it would have in the absence of the impeachment proceedings.

In addition, she said, conservative groups have lost momentum to push for one of their priorities--a voucher program for students from low-income households as part of Title I--since Republicans failed to make the gains they had anticipated in last fall's elections.

But no matter what happens, a "long and nasty fight over vouchers" is looming, said Bruce Hunter, the senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. Members of a coalition of some other education groups plan to release their ESEA recommendations this week.

Derrick Max, the director of government relations for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, suggested that the Senate trial could actually speed up the ESEA reauthorization, but leave its components largely intact. He reasons that Republicans may feel a need to gain some quick legislative accomplishments to help offset what may be a politically unpopular trial.

If that happens, they may ignore those seeking drastic changes in exchange for a bipartisan, watered-down bill that could be passed quickly, said Mr. Max, a former House GOP aide.

"Republicans could end up passing a bill that spends a lot of money and makes few fixes," he said.

How much money will be available for school initiatives of any sort remains a question.

Budget Caps

With tight balanced-budget caps already mandated for the next spending plan, education programs may not see large increases--or any increases at all--in the White House budget proposal for fiscal 2000. The president is also expected to propose large boosts for discretionary defense spending, which could jeopardize gains for education, said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a Washington-based coalition of education groups that lobbies for federal aid.

"We're concerned about the combination of Congress being distracted by the impeachment, and the administration focused on restraining spending," Mr. Kealy said.

President Clinton is also expected to face a tough fight to maintain funding for last year's $1.2 billion initiative to help districts hire 100,000 new teachers. Congress funded the first installment of that plan, which will allow the hiring of about 30,000 teachers, in the Education Department's current fiscal 1999 budget of $32.9 billion in discretionary education spending.

Secretary Riley, for his part, has publicly denounced the Republican-led efforts to remove Mr. Clinton from office. Last month, he issued a statement advocating a vote on a censure of Mr. Clinton instead of impeachment. He also said that education initiatives would continue to be a priority in 1999.

"The Senate should now pick up the pieces, and in a bipartisan manner define a compromise that expresses the will of the American people, upholds the Constitution, and keeps this nation moving forward," he said Dec. 19, the day the House adopted two of four proposed articles of impeachment. "The Senate can still make sense of this sorry debacle, and reflect the American people's basic sense of fairness."

Meanwhile, few observers will wager on what lies ahead.

"The politics this year are going to be as wild and squirrelly as anything I've ever seen," Mr. Hunter predicted.

Vol. 18, Issue 18, Pages 1,27

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