Partisan Tensions Flare Up in 'Ed-Flex' Debate
House and Senate lawmakers are set to reconcile differences over the first education bill to see action in the 106th Congress, but a Senate GOP amendment that strikes at one of President Clinton's top priorities has raised the stakes considerably.
A bill that by most accounts is relatively modest in scope, the Education Flexibility Partnership Act, or "Ed-Flex," has ignited a political struggle that may prove a harbinger of wide partisan divisions in store for Congress' reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act later this year.
"This is posturing for who is the best education party," said Arnold F. Fege, the president of the Washington-based nonprofit consulting firm, Public Advocacy for Kids. He added that given the protracted debate expected over the ESEA, "Ed-Flex potentially becomes the only education bill" to pass Congress this year.
Last month, the House and the Senate approved separate versions of Ed-Flex, which offers states and school districts freedom from certain federal rules in exchange for more accountability. The bills would expand an existing pilot program in 12 states to allow all 50 states and the District of Columbia to participate. Congress' next task is to hold House-Senate conference committee discussions to hammer out a final bill; preliminary negotiations at the staff level have already begun. ("Both Chambers Pass 'Ed-Flex' Bills," March 17, 1999.)
Throughout the debate, Democrats and Republicans alike have seized on Ed-Flex as a platform to promote their education agendas.
The thorniest issue ahead is likely to be whether to retain a Republican-sponsored amendment in the Senate bill that would allow federal dollars now earmarked for the president's prized teacher-hiring program to be used instead for special education. Mr. Clinton sharply criticized the amendment, raising expectations that the language could be grounds for a veto.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats have been collecting signatures on a letter opposing the Ed-Flex bill if the Republican amendment is not removed. "We do have enough [senators] to sustain a veto," Molly Rowley, a spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, said last week.
Differences also remain over the bills' accountability language and the details of "targeting" provisions designed to protect funding for high-poverty schools. In addition, the House version would cause Ed-Flex to expire once the ESEA was reauthorized; that means any revised Ed-Flex program would have to be built into the ESEA overhaul.
Ed-Flex has been mired in partisan debate since Republicans decided this year to move the expansion measure separately from the ESEA, which governs Title I and many other Department of Education programs in K-12 education. Many observers saw the move as a gop effort to get back on track after President Clinton's impeachment trial by passing a popular education bill.
The Clinton administration, however, argued that since Ed-Flex provides waivers for certain ESEA programs, any changes should take place as part of the ESEA reauthorization. Senate Democrats and the administration then insisted that Republicans allow votes on a host of unrelated Democratic education priorities, including authorizing the new federal class-size-reduction program for six more years at a cost of $11.4 billion.
But in what many education lobbyists view as a shrewd political move, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., struck back by amending the Ed-Flex bill to include language that would allow $1.2 billion already appropriated for the teacher-hiring program to be used to help defray costs related to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Meeting the federal government's previously stated intention of paying 40 percent of IDEA costs has become a major Republican theme.
In an interview, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., echoed the position of many Democrats in saying she supports increased IDEA funding, but she argued that the Lott amendment would pit the special education community against advocates for smaller classes.
"This shouldn't be an either-or game," Sen. Murray said.
Politics vs. Policy
Many education observers here suggest that politics, rather than policy, is at the core of the Ed-Flex debate.
"At some level, what this has become is political gamesmanship," said Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust, an advocacy group for poor and minority students. "I think what we're seeing play out is the opening salvo of the presidential campaign."
Overall, Ed-Flex has generated a surprising level of attention, given that the bill does not seek dramatic changes in federal education policy.
"It really did get a lot of airplay, received a lot of ink," said Jay Diskey, a spokesman for Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. "The PR aspects of the bill seriously exceeded the size of the legislation."
The debate appears to be a warm-up for a bigger battle over the ESEA, which has broader implications for education policy as a whole.
"It's a sign of the difficult road a lot of Republicans have up ahead if they can't pass something as small and limited as Ed-Flex," said Nina Shokraii Rees, an education-policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Although some observers predict that Republicans will likely decide to strike the Lott amendment in conference, others say House Democrats may have complicated the issue. Last month, they went to the House floor with a motion to instruct the Ed-Flex conference committee to remove the Lott language. The motion, which failed largely along party lines, flagged the issue for some conservatives who oppose the president's class-size effort. A House Democratic aide, requesting anonymity, said the purpose of the motion was "to send a message that if the president vetoes it, the Democrats will support that veto."
The Ed-Flex debate has also revealed some intraparty tensions. Six conservative and moderate House Democrats, including an Ed-Flex co-sponsor, Rep. Tim Roemer of Indiana, protested that in choosing Democratic conferees their leadership excluded party members who voted for the bill, even though a majority of Democrats supported it. The comments came in a sharply worded March 24 letter to Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo.
"This is a perfect example of why the Democratic Party is struggling so hard to define itself, and why we are losing ground in public opinion polls on issues like education, which belong to us," the Democrats wrote.
Vol. 18, Issue 31, Pages 22,26