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Published in Print: June 2, 1999, as GOP Lays Out Plan for Revamp of Class-Size Initiative

GOP Lays Out Plan for Revamp of Class-Size Initiative

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Debate on how to revamp President Clinton's class-size-reduction plan has already begun, with two contrasting proposals taking form even before the first checks are mailed to districts this summer.

Seeking to capitalize on the program's popularity even as they attempt to drastically change it, House Republicans are talking up a new plan that would give districts much more flexibility in how they could use the funding. Instead of a strict mandate to hire new teachers to shrink class sizes, the plan focuses on teacher training and quality.

The proposal, part of the GOP plan for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act this year, would consolidate three existing programs--the $491 million Goals 2000 reform initiative, the $335 million Eisenhower Professional Development Grants, and the $1.2 billion class-size-reduction initiative--to create a new program. Ninety-five percent of the funding would go to districts and allow them greater flexibility in hiring teachers and to provide professional development, and teacher "signing bonuses."

"The key, which is part of my philosophy, is to have a good teacher in the classroom," said Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who was at a news conference in the Capitol last Thursday to unveil the bill called the Teacher Empowerment Act.

By contrast, President Clinton's ESEA proposal would mainly stay the course on the year-old class-size-reduction initiative aimed at helping schools hire 100,000 new teachers over seven years.

It would still require districts to hire additional elementary school teachers to lower class sizes in grades 1-3. But it proposes a new matching-grant requirement for most districts and some flexibility for small districts.

From the outset, however, some administrators have questioned how--or whether--they can use the $1.2 billion allotted last year. They point to shortages of qualified teacher-candidates and district allocations too small to pay even one salary.

And the adoption of the program last year remains a sore point for Republicans, who argue that teacher hiring should be a strictly local issue. ("Critics Doubt Teacher Plan's Effectiveness," Oct. 28, 1998.)

'Quality Issue' Stressed

The class-size-reduction plan, a cornerstone of last year's Democratic education agenda, found its way into the final budget bill for fiscal 1999 after last-minute negotiations with Republicans. Democrats promoted the plan heavily as part of last year's midterm-election campaigns.

Recognizing the popularity of the class-size issue with their constituents, the GOP has also stipulated in its plan that the funding for the program must be used for some form of class-size reduction.

The proposal recalls a past strategy of House Republicans, led by Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvanian who chairs the House Education and Workforce Committee, to dismantle a popular program proposed by Mr. Clinton and retool it along Republican lines.

In that instance, the House GOP reworked Mr. Clinton's America Reads program, a 1996 campaign initiative focused on reading tutors, and reworked it into the Reading Excellence Act. That act, which Mr. Clinton signed into law, focuses on teacher training.

Republicans criticized the current class-size-reduction plan last week, saying too many districts are already hiring unqualified teachers and offering shoddy professional-development courses.

"The administration is so focused on reducing class size that it loses sight of the bigger quality issue," Mr. Goodling said at the press conference last week. "And we try to find the right balance between reducing class size and retaining quality teachers."

The Republicans' Teacher Empowerment Act would:

  • Require districts to set up a new "teacher opportunity payments" program to let schools choose any training program for their teachers that is based on research and tied to the subject areas the teacher was teaching;
  • Bar the creation of any new, federally funded national-certification test for teachers;
  • Require districts to give parents access to information about their children's teachers, such as certification and degree, an idea first proposed by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., last year; and
  • Require districts to continue to focus the same amount of funding they received under the Eisenhower program on professional development in mathematics and science.

The House Republicans are aiming to pass their bill by August. But Joe Karpinski, a spokesman for Republicans on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said that panel had no plans to consider the bill, but instead might consolidate some of the ideas in it into the Senate committee's omnibus ESEA legislation later this year.

While the House Republicans say they are working with Democrats, their plan has yet to attract any Democratic co-sponsors or win support from the Education Department.

"Their proposal would really walk away from the bipartisan commitment we reached last year to reduce class size in grades 1 to 3," said Michael Cohen, a senior adviser to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. "Class-size reduction is fundamental to us."

Furthermore, Mr. Cohen said, the language barring national certification tests for teachers would undermine the work of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The nonprofit, privately organized group, which receives some federal aid, offers voluntary certification for teachers who meet advanced teaching standards.

Republican lawmakers denied that the plan would hurt the national board.

Still, because of the uncertainties of the current class-size program, some education groups may support aspects of the proposed Teacher Empowerment Act.

"Virtually everyone likes reducing class sizes--the question is, what is the best use of the $1.2 billion?" said Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators. Mr. Hunter said last week that his members would likely prefer the GOP plan because it would drive the money directly to districts--rather than to states, as is the case with the current program--and allow them flexibility to use more federal dollars for professional development and hiring bonuses.

Seeking Flexibility

In response to criticism from small districts, the White House's ESEA proposal would allow districts that are allotted less than the local average salary for a starting teacher to form consortia with other small districts to hire full-time or part-time teachers or to supplement the allocation with other funds. Or, if a small school system received a grant of less than $10,000, it could use the money entirely for professional development under the administration plan.

So far, 17 states have requested waivers from the Department of Education in using class-size-reduction aid. One of the states, South Dakota, wants permission to allow its small districts to consolidate funds and hire one teacher, said Barry W. Furze, superintendent of the 3,000-student Meade district in Sturgis, S.D.

North Dakota Gov. Edward T. Schafer, the vice chairman of the Republican Governors' Association, said in an interview last week that his state needed flexibility in using its class-size funds because the average class size statewide was already a low 18.7. Districts there would like to use the federal money to hire substitute teachers and support professional development. "States ought to have the flexibility to educate," the governor said.

Many district officials, meanwhile, are still wary of using class-size funding because they are worried the program, which Congress has not authorized past the current fiscal year ending Sept. 30, will not be funded in future years, Gov. Schafer added.

Jeff Simering, the government-relations director for the Council of the Great City Schools, said the GOP plan could diminish the funding for the large urban districts his group represents. Those districts were strong supporters of the president's plan.

Vol. 18, Issue 38, Page 17

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