Conferees Agree on Revised 'Ed-Flex' Bill
House and Senate negotiators late last week made passage of the first education legislation of the year all but certain after agreeing to strike a Senate GOP provision that Democrats had argued would undermine President Clinton's prized teacher-hiring program.
Lawmakers named to the conference committee on the Education Flexibility Partnership Act resolved differences between House and Senate versions of the legislation, voting to move a reconciled bill forward. Staff members are expected to work through a few details before the full House and Senate vote on the final package.
The biggest breakthrough came when Republicans agreed to eliminate a measure that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., added to the Senate bill that would have allowed the $1.2 billion appropriated this year for class-size reduction to be used instead for special education.
The provision prompted an outcry from Democrats and the Clinton administration and raised the stakes considerably on what most experts consider a bill that would have only modest impact on education policy. ("Partisan Tensions Flare Up in 'Ed-Flex' Debate," April 14, 1999.)
Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley last week had issued a letter warning that he would recommend a presidential veto unless the Lott amendment was removed. But now Mr. Riley will urge support for the revised bill, according to his press secretary, Julie Green.
The House and the Senate last month approved separate versions of the "Ed-Flex" bill, which offers states and school districts freedom from certain federal rules in exchange for more accountability.
The legislation would expand an existing pilot program in 12 states to allow all 50 states and the District of Columbia to participate.
The chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., said in an interview after the conference vote that he agreed philosophically with the Lott amendment allowing class-size dollars to be used for special education. "But that isn't the issue we're faced with here," he said. "The original language doesn't fit in this legislation." Some Republicans, however, say they intend to revisit the issue later this year.
During the conference committee, Democrats reminded their GOP colleagues that they had enough votes to sustain a presidential veto.
The Lott amendment "is basically a nonstarter" that would force school districts to make a "cruel choice" between lowering class size and funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
In a concession to Sen. James M. Jeffords, the Vermont Republican who chairs that committee, the conferees agreed to modify the original class-size-reduction legislation.
The new wording stipulates that small districts that already have reduced class sizes to 18 or fewer in the early grades and do not qualify for enough funding to hire a full-time teacher would not be required, as current law states, to form consortia with other districts in order to use the money for professional development or to make further class-size reductions. When Department of Education guidance on the class-size plan was unveiled last month, administrators in very small districts viewed the consortia provision as impractical. ("Department Unveils Guidance on Class-Size Initiative," March 17, 1999.)
The Ed-Flex conferees also debated language, which was included in the final package, that would amend the discipline provisions of the IDEA. The law currently subjects a student with a disability to the discipline provisions if the student "carries" a weapon to school. Conferees agreed to add "or possesses" to the language.
Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa expressed strong opposition to amending the IDEA. He suggested that Republicans and Democrats instead issue a joint letter to the Education Department urging a change in the recently released IDEA regulations. "We spent three and a half years hammering out IDEA," he said. "You are going to open a can of worms" by amending it, Mr, Harkin argued.
The Ed-Flex bill has garnered significant attention, with Republicans making it a priority as they sought to regroup following President Clinton's impeachment acquittal.
But most observers caution that the legislation offers only modest freedom from existing federal policy and that the much bigger debate over education this year will be the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the nation's main K-12 education law.
The conferees agreed to include report language saying that when the ESEA is reauthorized, lawmakers should take steps to ensure that Ed-Flex remains consistent with the new law. Hearings on the ESEA are under way.
Title I Funds
The House and Senate conferees also reconciled differences in the Ed-Flex legislation that seek to protect funding intended for poor students.
They retained a Senate measure that prohibits waiving the requirement that schools must allocate Title I funds first to schools in which more than 75 percent of students are considered poor.
The conferees also agreed to a slightly modified House provision that says a state cannot approve a waiver request to make a school that is otherwise ineligible to receive Title I funds eligible unless the percentage of poor students is no more than 10 percent below the eligibility requirement.
But several House Democrats on the Ed-Flex conference committee, including Rep. William L. Clay of Missouri, the ranking Democrat on the Education and the Workforce Committee, complained that the legislation is still insufficient to ensure that disadvantaged students receive the federal funding they are entitled to.
Vol. 18, Issue 32, Pages 21-22