House GOP Tosses ESEA-Reauthorization Bill Into Ring
Republicans on the House education committee last week introduced their version of legislation to enact President Bush's precollegiate agenda. Their bill embraces Mr. Bush's plans for more testing and more flexibility, and for providing educational vouchers to students in persistently failing schools.
At the same time, in a few areas, the bill diverges from the president's approach, such as his proposal that states use the National Assessment of Educational Progress as a check on state testing programs. The bill would allow the use of other nationally recognized tests as well.
The proposed legislation comes as committee Republicans continue to negotiate with their Democratic counterparts in an effort to find common ground in reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the flagship federal law in K-12 education. With a narrow Republican margin in the House and an evenly divided Senate, any final bill will require bipartisan support, analysts here say. The ESEA reauthorization is overdue, after Congress failed to complete work on it last year.
Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said the GOP members' bill seeks to focus greater attention on closing the achievement gap between students of different racial and economic groups, and would hand states and schools more flexibility in spending federal aid while demanding more accountability for improving student performance. It would require annual testing in grades 3-8 to measure that performance.
If a failing school did not turn around after three years, a portion of the school's federal Title I aid, coupled with some state money, could be used to help pay the costs of attending another school, whether public or private, or to pay for tutoring. The creation of such vouchers is the most debated of Mr. Bush's ideas.
"Without a strong safety valve at the end of this process, we're really not serious about making sure no child in America is left behind," Mr. Boehner said in making the argument for such a program during a March 22 press conference.
Rep. George Miller of California, the education committee's ranking Democrat, said "there is much to like, and much to dislike" in the GOP bill. Vouchers, for instance, are a political nonstarter, he suggested. "However, despite our differences on some key issues, I remain optimistic that ... we can forge a bipartisan agreement this year," he said.
Still, he cautioned against changing the president's plan to require states to use NAEP, which Mr. Miller favors. The GOP bill would allow states to use a benchmark other than NAEP, such as the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition, or the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, if they wish.
"I'm not sure who Bush has a bigger problem with, Democrats or his own party," said Andrew J. Rotherham, the director of education policy at the Progressive Policy Institute, which is affiliated with the Democratic Leadership Council. "They're slowly ripping the guts out [of the president's testing plan] because they don't like it."
But Sandy Kress, Mr. Bush's education adviser, said that while the White House had concerns on the NAEP issue and in a few other areas, overall he was pleased with the House GOP legislation.
"This is an excellent bill," he said. "We see so many ... reflections of the president's policy here." He added: "Clearly, there are places where we would want to work further with [Mr. Boehner] and his committee."
Just days after he took office, President Bush unveiled his education plan, a 28-page blueprint for reshaping the federal role in schools. But he has left it up to Congress to take the lead in drafting legislation to enact his proposals. ("Democrats, GOP Agree in Principle on Federal Role," Jan. 31, 2001.)
The Senate, meanwhile, is a step ahead in the process. Its Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee earlier this month unanimously approved its version of the ESEA. That bill also reflected many aspects of the president's agenda, such as annual testing, his reading initiative, and consolidation of programs, though it excluded a few of the most controversial items, including vouchers.
The new bill, HR 1, contains the president's proposals for reading, and math and science instruction. It also echoes his call for penalties for states that failed to close the achievement gap and bonus awards for states that did.
The measure also takes a stab at making federal aid more flexible, a priority for Mr. Bush. HR 1, like the Senate bill, would consolidate most technology programs into a single fund and combine the class-size-reduction and Eisenhower professional-development programs into a broader teacher-quality initiative.
But HR 1 would also combine federal safe schools and after-school programs into a single, flexible fund. The Senate bill would keep those separate, as the White House would like.
Furthermore, HR 1 includes a version of the president's proposal to let states or districts convert most of their ESEA funds into block grants in exchange for a five-year performance agreement with the Education Department. Most Democrats oppose the idea.
And the GOP bill contains a plan for "transferability," which would allow either a school district or a state to shift a portion of its ESEA funds from one program area to another.
Vol. 20, Issue 28, Page 24