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Published in Print: July 12, 2000, as House Republicans Propose School Construction Bill

House Republicans Propose School Construction Bill

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In what some see as a legislative change of heart, House Republican leaders have introduced a bill to help districts pay for school renovations and repairs.

Their proposal came just four days after the release of a Department of Education study that set the price tag for repairing the nation's schools at $127 billion.

"We introduced this legislation to provide a limited federal response to the facilities needs of state and local school districts," Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a prepared statement announcing the proposed Classroom Modernization Act.

Rep. Bill Goodling

Mr. Goodling and other Republicans on the committee who are sponsoring the bill have adamantly opposed President Clinton's proposals for a new federal program to help districts pay interest on school construction bonds. ("GOP Working on School Construction Bill," June 7, 2000.)

The GOP bill would amend an existing, unfunded Elementary and Secondary Education Act program that was intended to provide school construction grants. That initiative, which was sponsored by then-Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill., had been slated to receive $100 million in the fiscal 1995 budget, but that appropriation was rescinded in early 1995.

The Republican bill would provide up to $1.5 billion in state grants annually for five years to help with school infrastructure costs. It would alter the existing unfunded ESEA language to give states money under a formula based 50 percent on child poverty rates and 50 percent on the formula for allocating Title I grants. The states would determine which schools received money and how the dollars would be spent.

Regular public schools would be restricted to using the money for renovations related to codes, federal mandates, or technology upgrades. The bill would give charter schools—largely independent public schools that often have problems renting or building facilities—much more leeway to use the federal funds to build or buy buildings.

"While this bill provides much-needed assistance with meeting school infrastructure mandates and priorities, it does so while remaining true to the proper federal role in education," said Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., who chairs the House subcommittee on K-12 education. Along with Mr. Goodling and Mr. Castle, Republican Reps. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon of California and Johnny Isakson of Georgia are co-sponsoring the initiative.

Republicans believe that school construction should largely remain a state and local funding priority, and that the federal government should not interfere with such decisions.

In an interview, Mr. Goodling said it was important for Republicans to offer their own construction plan. "When it comes to negotiating with the White House ... [the Clinton administration is] holding the trump cards,"he said.

Democrats See Momentum

Some observers saw the GOP plan as a victory for the president, saying that he had worn down congressional Republicans on an issue that has proved popular with voters. Mr. Clinton first proposed his construction plan in his 1997 State of the Union Address.

Republicans "are doing modest bills so they can talk about an issue as if they had a solution," asserted John F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington research group, and a former aide to House Democrats. "The Republicans, even though they don't agree philosophically, feel they're losing politically, and have to come up with something that feels like a program."

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said he was happy to see the GOP proposal, but criticized it for not specifically targeting funds to high-need areas. He also said it would pit charter schools against regular public schools.

"I am glad to see that, at long last, growing numbers of the majority in Congress are recognizing that there is a necessary federal role in responding to this critical need," Mr. Riley said in a written statement. But he added that "the Classroom Modernization Act has many shortcomings."

Currently, Congress is also considering a bipartisan proposal from Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., and Nancy L. Johnson, R-Conn., to provide about $25 billion in low-interest bonds, a plan similar to the one President Clinton has proposed.

Mr. Goodling's bill "clearly has a different scope and target than Johnson-Rangel," said Jordan Cross, a legislative specialist with the American Association of School Administrators. "But the money in the Goodling bill would go a long way in helping schools meet mandates."

The classroom-modernization bill is also not the first GOP school construction initiative. Rep. Bill Archer, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, sponsored a proposal last year to amend the federal tax code to give a tax break to districts on certain school construction bonds. The measure passed as part of a tax-relief program late last year, but was vetoed by President Clinton.

With such a variety of proposals, Mr. Jennings said, Congress is bound to approve funding this year for school construction. "At the end of this Congress, there will be a school construction program," he predicted.

Vol. 19, Issue 42, Pages 34,39

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