Senate Ed. Committee Unanimously Approves K-12 Bill
After two days of heated debate, the Senate education committee unanimously approved a K-12 bill last week that embraces President Bush's calls for more testing and consolidating federal programs, but leaves out key changes sought by Republicans and Democrats.
The bipartisan effort stands in stark contrast to last year's committee deliberations over the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, when members reported out the legislation on a party-line vote. Congress ultimately failed to complete work on the bill, forcing it to renew its efforts this year.
Both sides made clear that last week's 20-0 vote was only the first step in what will likely be a protracted debate over the federal government's role in improving schools. In fact, the committee did not even consider a couple of the president's most contentious proposals, choosing instead to let senators address them on the Senate floor. At press time, it was unclear when that debate would take place.
The House, meanwhile, has yet to take any action on the legislation.
"Although we have some very important differences, I think we've got a good bill that's out of this committee," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said March 8 as the panel prepared for a final vote. "I want to see a better bill, and I'm counting on a better bill."
Both parties have compromised on the bill so far. Democrats agreed to consolidate or eliminate some programs they favor. And Republicans—faced with a committee now evenly divided on party lines to reflect the 50-50 breakdown in the Senate as a whole—withheld some of their demands.
"I think that while there's some modest steps in the right direction on flexibility, consolidation of programs, and ... the testing that the president wanted, the two key components of the president's proposal are omitted," Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R- Ark., said in an interview.
One of those components, Sen. Hutchinson said, is Mr. Bush's proposal for "charter" states and districts, which would allow states or school systems to convert most ESEA funding into a block grant in exchange for negotiating five-year performance agreements with the Department of Education. The other is the president's voucher proposal, which would allow parents of students in persistently failing schools to take their portion of federal funding elsewhere to pay for public or private school tuition, or outside tutoring.
Despite the exclusion of those two elements, the bipartisan bill approved last Thursday in many ways reflects President Bush's education agenda, which he outlined in January. ("Bush Unveils Education Plan," Jan. 23, 2001.)
'Fine First Step'
Meeting one of his highest priorities, the bill would mandate that states test students in Title I schools each year in grades 3-8 and authorize funding to help states create and administer those tests. It also contains versions of Mr. Bush's K-2 and early- reading initiatives, as well as his proposed program to improve mathematics and science instruction.
At the same time, the bill would provide some additional flexibility in spending federal aid, another Bush priority. For example, it would merge seven existing technology programs into a single, more flexible funding source. And the federal class-size-reduction program, a favorite initiative of President Clinton's, would be merged into a broader teacher- quality funding category, as President Bush has proposed.
In addition, more than a dozen programs would be repealed, including those for school renovation, physical and arts education, and creation of smaller learning environments in high schools.
The bill is "an extremely fine first step," Sandy Kress, the president's education adviser, said in an interview. "We would like to see some further steps in consolidation and flexibility, and we think there really needs to be greater parental choice as part of the consequences [for failing schools]."
Asked how wedded Mr. Bush is to the inclusion of the proposal for "charter" states and districts, Mr. Kress said that "we'll see how much consolidation we can achieve. If we can keep moving down the consolidation road, it may become less necessary."
Democrats spent considerable time during the debate last week trying to save some of the very programs that were combined or repealed, and trying to create new ones. For example, they introduced amendments to preserve separate programs for class-size reduction and school renovation, but both were defeated by party-line votes of 10- 10.
Early on, Sen. Kennedy sought a guarantee that 50 percent of the teacher- quality money be set aside for professional development.
But Republicans called that proposal a step backward, and they rejected it.
"The prescriptive input approach hasn't worked," Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said. "This amendment ends up undermining ... the whole concept of the bill."
Democrats argued throughout the deliberations that much higher federal spending would be needed if the president really wants to fulfill the vision of his "No Child Left Behind" education plan. And they suggested that Mr. Bush's proposal to increase the Education Department's discretionary budget by about 6 percent next fiscal year would not be enough.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., said she would not be able to vote for the bill on the Senate floor without assurances that the president would agree to a bigger spending increase.
"I can't vote for something that's going to be a Trojan horse," she said.
Mr. Kress declined to make any specific commitments on that matter. "I think the stage is set for a negotiation around money and around increased flexibility and accountability," he said.
Vol. 20, Issue 26, Pages 29,31