Dollars, Details Stall Education Bill In Senate
Money was considered a key—but not the only—stumbling block last week as the White House and Senate Democrats failed to reach a general agreement on how to overhaul the federal role in schools.
Despite the differences, which prompted Democrats to force a delay of floor action originally scheduled for early last week, the Senate was expected this week to begin debate over legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
At press time last Friday, the two sides remained billions of dollars apart on how much would be available for programs authorized under the main federal law for K-12 education, which this year will send out about $18 billion to schools.
Democrats, who hold half the seats in the Senate, are now asking for $8.8 billion in additional education spending for ESEA programs next fiscal year, while the White House reportedly came back with an offer of $2.6 billion. President Bush's formal budget request, unfurled on April 9, proposed about $670 million in additional money for those programs.
"Money is not the answer to everything, but it is a pretty good indication of the nation's priorities," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said on the Senate floor last week. "You cannot say education is your top priority and not put enough resources in the budget to do the job."
But some Republicans have rejected Democratic complaints about Mr. Bush's budget.
"The president has made legitimate proposals in this area," Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., a senior member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said during an April 25 press conference. He called the Democrats' funding demands "unrealistic."
Democrats relented on an earlier threat to hold up the ESEA-reauthorization process until the money issue was resolved, and they agreed to let the Senate begin debate as soon as this week.
But a number of complex policy issues were still in play last week, from the finer points of how states should gauge schools' progress to ensuring civil rights protections when federal after-school aid goes to religious organizations, as Mr. Bush has proposed. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have cautioned that the ESEA legislation is extremely complicated.
Congress is working to reauthorize the ESEA after failing to complete work on it last year. The Senate legislation, as approved by the education committee in early March, contains many elements of President Bush's education agenda, including more flexibility in spending federal aid, requirements for additional student testing, and the creation of new programs for math and science instruction and reading.
The Senate bill, however, excludes the president's proposal to allow students in persistently failing schools to receive publicly financed vouchers to help pay private school tuition costs.
Despite the committee-level concessions, the Senate bill has been the subject of intense negotiations between leading senators and the White House—which have led to substantial changes—as it awaits floor debate. For example, while vouchers are out, Democrats have agreed to support Mr. Bush's plan to allow parents of students in failing schools to direct a portion of the schools' federal aid to pay for private tutors, or to pay transportation costs to attend another public school.
At a press conference last Thursday, the so-called New Democrats, a coalition of moderates, said that in addition to money, their main concern was language on holding schools accountable for improving the performance of all students. Such accountability measures are staples of the New Democrats' legislative agenda, as well as a centerpiece of the president's plan.
"There was a step back in the last 24 hours on some of the agreements we had on accountability," Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., contended. "Any time you step back on setting standards for the schools to produce results, you're beginning ... to suggest that you're giving up."
Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., said, "This is the guts, the heart, the center of the reforms ... so it's critically important that we get this right."
In essence, the issue comes down to how to decide which schools are making adequate yearly progress and which are not.
The New Democrats want to require that each school meets specific goals every year for different subgroups of students, such as members of racial and ethnic minority groups and students with limited English proficiency. But a Bush administration aide, who asked not to be named, suggests that this could lead to the identification of huge numbers of schools as failing.
"It's too Draconian," the aide said. "It doesn't fit in with reality."
The aide noted that if a school made substantial progress in raising achievement levels of several subgroups, but fell just short with perhaps one group, it should not necessarily be identified as failing.
As of late last week, the White House and Senate leaders of both parties continued to work through the differences.
Aides and lobbyists last week also said a continued point of contention was the fine print of the Republicans' "Straight A's" plan, which would allow a limited number of states and districts to consolidate much of their ESEA funding into block grants in exchange for meeting still-tougher accountability demands. Democrats have insisted that the plan must protect current "targeting" provisions that seek to ensure federal aid reaches the neediest students.
At press time, details of a Straight A's compromise were still being worked out.
Meanwhile, a collection of education and civil rights groups issued a joint statement April 26 calling for more spending than the president has put forward. They also raised concerns that Mr. Bush's proposal to allow federal after-school aid to go to faith-based groups could result in government-funded discrimination.
"We insist on strong legislative protections in the ESEA bill that would ensure that federally funded after-school programs abide by current civil rights laws," the groups said. "Friends of education and civil rights could never agree to a plan that would use taxpayer dollars to subsidize discrimination in any way."
Despite the unsettled issues, both sides emphasized that great strides had been made in finding common ground, senatorial code that a deal is possible.
"We have made substantial progress in the negotiations, really important progress," Sen. Lieberman said.
"We do have a lot of overlap [in] where we want to go in many areas," Sen. Gregg added.
Even so, Mr. Gregg said that he planned to offer at least three voucher-related amendments. One would allow communities or states with school choice programs already in place using state and local funds— Milwaukee, for instance—to also spend federal money for that purpose. Another would allow federal Title I dollars to be portable, following a student to the school of his or her choice.
And the third would be a pilot voucher program for the District of Columbia, modeled on legislation proposed by Sen. Lieberman and former Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., two years ago.
Asked whether Mr. Lieberman would support such a measure again, his spokesman, Dan Gerstein, said it would depend on how it was written. He noted that Mr. Lieberman's proposed plan was for a pilot program, focused on poor children and with a strong research component.
"If it's the same legislation ... he'll support it," Mr. Gerstein said.
Meanwhile, the House Education and the Workforce Committee was expected this week to take action on its version of the ESEA reauthorization. Republicans and Democrats have long been negotiating on the legislation in that chamber.
But entering this week, some major divisions remained on critical issues, such as school vouchers and how much flexibility to hand states and school districts in spending federal aid.
Vol. 20, Issue 33, Pages 26,29