ESEA, Minus Vouchers, Easily Passes House
On a day when party labels had the other chamber in turmoil, a surprisingly unified House overwhelmingly passed a version of President Bush's education reform plan last week that would for the first time tie federal aid to school performance on annual math and reading tests.
After knocking down an effort to reinsert federally financed vouchers for private schools and squelching another amendment that would have purged the bill of the testing requirement, the House voted 384-45 for HR 1, which would reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
The Senate, which had been scheduled to continue what has been a slow process of amending its own version of the ESEA, instead spent the week passing a $1.35 trillion tax cut bill onstage and buzzing offstage about the shift in party control touched off by Republican-turned-Independent Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont.
With Congress in recess this week, and the uncertainty caused by Mr. Jeffords' move, it was unclear last week when the Senate might complete passage of S 1 so that a conference committee can negotiate a merged version of the House and Senate legislation.
At the heart of the House bill, which calls for $24 billion next year in federal spending on precollegiate education, a 29 percent increase, is the requirement for states to administer the tests in grades 3-8 as a way of identifying failing schools, tracking the progress of poorly achieving schools, and offering parents information on the quality of their children's schools.
States and school districts would be required to prepare school "report cards" annually. The bill would allow parents to remove their child from a low-performing school and instead enroll him at another public school after the school had been identified as failing. The child's transportation costs would be paid for with federal dollars.
In an unusual teaming, Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., and Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., spearheaded the amendment to strike the testing language. Mr. Hoekstra is part of a mostly conservative Republican faction generally ill at ease with a federal role in education. Mr. Frank, meanwhile, is among the most liberal members of Congress. The amendment failed in a similarly bipartisan fashion, 255-173.
"Testing is not ready for prime time," Mr. Hoekstra said, referring to news reports pointing out mistakes in the design and scoring of standardized tests.
President Bush, in a statement issued after the final vote, called it "a giant step toward improving America's public schools."
"The education reforms adopted today," he continued, "build on the principles of accountability, flexibility, local control, and greater choices for parents."
The chairman of the House education committee, Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said the House had taken a big step toward closing the achievement gap between poor and better-off students.
"For the last 35 years, the federal government has increased education spending and created new programs, but never once demanded results," said Mr. Boehner, who shepherded the bill through the House on behalf of the administration. "At its heart, this legislation is not about money, it's about reform."
The bill's passage came after months of negotiations, during which Mr. Bush agreed to abandon his push for federally funded tuition vouchers, but succeeded in retaining the annual testing requirement and measures that would give states and districts more flexibility in spending federal education grants.
"We've been through a lot of rocky seas," Mr. Boehner said, before taking a metaphorical leap. "I'll walk over hot coals for this president any time he asks me."
Conservatives in the House lost a final bid for vouchers when two school choice amendments proposed by House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Tex., failed. One, which would have offered parents of students who attend unsafe or failing schools $1,500 to send their children to private or religious schools, was defeated, 273-155. The other, a scaled-down version that called for creating a pilot voucher program, failed 241-186.
The House Republican leadership team, including Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., voted for both amendments. Mr. Armey's succinct reaction to what had been a widely predicted last gasp for vouchers: "I'm upset."
The Senate bill likewise no longer includes a voucher program.
Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the Education and the Workforce Committee, said he and other Democrats were able to fight off "extreme provisions," such as the voucher proposal, and still come up with a bipartisan bill.
"This bill has strong accountability measures, accompanied with a commitment for significant new federal resources to improve education," Mr. Miller said. "Unlike current law, this bill would require schools to help all students improve their performance—not just the average child. And unlike current law, this bill would require that all teachers become qualified to teach. Those are two very significant changes to the way we educate our children today."
The bill would give school districts the option of transferring up to 50 percent of the federal education dollars they receive among an assortment of ESEA programs as long as the districts demonstrate results.
In addition, the House approved an amendment last week that would allow up to 100 school districts nationwide to enter into five-year performance agreements with the U.S. secretary of education. Those arrangements would allow the districts to waive federal program requirements, in exchange for holding them accountable for improving student achievement.
If schools that receive Title I funds are identified as failing and do not improve within three years, parents could use federal funds to pay for private tutoring for their children. Under the bill, schools that continued to show poor results could be "reconstituted"—meaning fully restaffed—or transformed into charter schools.
The House bill also would consolidate or eliminate half of the ESEA's 66 programs, instead offering block grants to states that could be used for a variety of specified purposes.
It also requires states to outline a plan for how to put a "fully qualified teacher" in every classroom by 2005, to be eligible for federal funds. The legislation does not define "fully qualified."
The House and Senate versions of the ESEA reauthorization are similar, but contain a few differences that lawmakers say could present challenges in reaching an agreement between the chambers. Those elements include controversial measures that deal with special education.
Under the Senate version, Congress would be required to provide "full funding" of special education, generally defined as federal aid for students with disabilities that equals 40 percent of the average cost of educating all students. The federal government currently pays about 15 percent.
Moreover, the Senate bill would move special education funding from the discretionary to the mandatory side of the federal budget, a change intended to remove such aid from the year-to-year political vagaries.
An amendment added to the House version last week would allow teachers to discipline a special education student in the same manner as a general education student. The schools would have the freedom to punish those students through suspension or expulsion if they committed a serious infraction, such as weapons or drug possession or aggravated assault.
Current law requires that such students, rather than being sent home, receive instruction in alternative schools. Discipline was the subject of heated debate during the 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the House provision adopted last week is likely to face opposition.
The Senate also included a measure called "Straight A's," championed by Republicans, that would allow seven states and 25 school districts to waive federal education requirements in return for meeting stricter standards.
"We'll have to find a way to work it out," Mr. Boehner said of the divergence in the two houses' bills. "The core of the Senate bill is the same as the House bill."
More conservative Republicans have said in recent weeks that the removal of vouchers and other provisions have gutted Mr. Bush's original "Leave No Child Behind" proposal. Rep. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., as quoted in the National Review, said the bill in its current form would more accurately be called the "Leave No Democrats Behind Act."
But the bill left behind very few Republicans as well. The final vote included nays from only 10 Democrats, 34 Republicans and an independent.
Vol. 20, Issue 38, Pages 24,26