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Published in Print: February 3, 1999, as Flexibility the Theme During ESEA Hearings

Flexibility the Theme During ESEA Hearings

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House and Senate lawmakers announced plans to give states more flexibility over how they spend federal school aid last week, as the House began the process of renewing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., joined the fray by announcing that the second bill of this congressional session would address education, particularly by relaxing rules on spending federal dollars, combining funding for numerous programs into block grants, and providing support for school construction projects.

"We can ensure the best and safest schools in the world by sending dollars directly to the classroom, restoring basic academics, and getting parents involved," Mr. Hastert, a former longtime teacher, said in a prepared statement.

Clinton administration officials said they would release their own plans soon for cutting federal red tape while also holding states more accountable for how they spend federal dollars.

The flurry of activity came as a House education panel held its first hearings on reauthorizing the ESEA, the flagship K-12 law that incorporates 70 school programs, including Title I aid for schools with large numbers of students from low-income households. ESEA programs account for $14 billion in spending this fiscal year, and the reauthorization process is expected to run through much of 1999 and possibly into next year.

"We must find ways to financially assist states in improving our schools," the House education committee's chairman, Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., said as he opened the hearings last week. "But we must continue to resist the siren song that Washington knows best."

More Flexibility

During two days of testimony before the House Education and the Workforce Committee, state leaders made it clear that they want to see an expansion of the 12-state pilot program known as "Ed-Flex," which gives participating states great leeway in using federal aid.

"This Ed-Flex has allowed us to eliminate all the rigamarole about process and input and move forward on programs for students" said Nancy S. Grasmick, the Maryland state schools chief. "We're grateful."

Sen. George V. Voinovich, R-Ohio, who served as his state's governor before moving to the Senate this year, declared that the best part of Ed-Flex is that it allows states to combine funding from different federal programs.

By week's end, some members of the education panel even called for separating an Ed-Flex bill from the larger ESEA legislation so that it could move through Congress faster.

That's where Speaker Hastert's bill, HR 2, comes in. An Ed-Flex proposal could be wrapped into the legislation. "This is something we intend to move separately [from the ESEA,]" said Jay Diskey, a spokesman for Republicans on the House panel. "We want it to move to the floor as soon as possible."

Meanwhile, Sens. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., announced last week that they too will sponsor an "education flexibility" bill. Details of the plan were not forthcoming last week.

Not everybody was in such a rush, though.

The administration said it wants to expand Ed-Flex as well, but only as part of the ESEA renewal.

"We just think it needs to happen in the context of the reauthorization," said Julie Green, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education.

Construction Views

Witnesses were more divided, meanwhile, over federal funding for school construction. Without going into specifics, Mr. Hastert joined President Clinton last week in calling for a federal initiative to help states build and repair schools.

During the hearings, Arizona schools chief Lisa Graham Keegan, whose own state has been involved in a long-running effort to increase equity in construction spending, suggested that panel members first ask, "'Why are schools crumbling in some areas and not others?' Maybe some states have not dealt with the fundamental inequities of school funding."

Asked if he would rather receive federal money for school construction or other programs, Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, a Republican, said he would prefer the aid go to special education and other existing programs.

"Before you start new, well-intended efforts, make sure enough money is spent on existing programs, or they'll be marginalized," he said.

But Gery Chico, the president of the Chicago school board, pleaded for federal school construction aid.

"We're not asking for a handout," said Mr. Chico, who said Chicago has raised $2 billion for school construction since 1995. "But we can't do much more on our own without running into trouble."

Accountability Concerns

As the reauthorization process unfolds, Republicans and Democrats are likely to spar over how to make sure federal money is spent wisely.

In his State of the Union Address last month, President Clinton said he wants to require districts that receive federal aid to end social promotion of students not academically ready to advance to the next grade, ensure teacher quality, and publish district report cards.

His concerns were championed last week by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., a member of the House education panel.

"States can cry for flexibility until the cows come home, but what they really need is accountability," he said in an interview. He plans to introduce a bill attaching new conditions for federal school aid.

Gov. Ridge, a former member of the House, suggested that the panel not be overly prescriptive.

"Does that mean you regulate from Washington as though all schools are dysfunctional? No. Because they're not," he said.

One of the most sobering testimonies came from David Eisner, the vice president of corporate relations for America Online Inc., based in nearby Fairfax County, Va.

He said that, according to a recent Department of Commerce report, white Americans are more than twice as likely as African-Americans or Hispanics to own a computer. And 75 percent of households with incomes of more than $75,000 own computers, compared with just 10 percent of the poorest families.

"Without full technology literacy, many of our children will find the bridge to the 21st century is shaky indeed," he said.

Vol. 18, Issue 21, Pages 24,26

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