School Issues Vie For Attention of Congress
It didn't take long for education to capture center stage when federal lawmakers returned last week from their August recess.
The Senate almost immediately took up a spending bill covering the Department of Education—with Democrats and a few Republicans seeking more money for schools—and the House last Friday was expected to debate a hotly contested measure that would create a pilot school voucher program for the District of Columbia.
Beyond those items, the Republican-controlled Congress has much unfinished business to attend to on education and related matters, from bills on special education and higher education to Head Start and welfare reform. Lobbyists predict that a hearty chunk of that agenda will carry over into next year.
Certainly, many of the education issues are complex, and their politics can be sharply divisive, making for slow going. On top of that, there is much competition for lawmakers' time and attention, especially between now and when Congress adjourns later this year.
"[The agenda] is exceedingly crowded," said Thomas E. Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
Congress still must complete work on a long series of spending bills, he said, plus "a couple of high-priority items for the [Bush] administration, including energy and prescription drugs, which face daunting obstacles."
"It's just a very, very difficult time," Mr. Mann said.
Beyond the education budget, the top priority for leading education policymakers in both parties is completing the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The House passed a Republican- crafted bill earlier this year, and the Senate was expected to bring its own, bipartisan plan to the floor in the coming weeks.
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, predicted that the Senate would "absolutely" pass a special education reauthorization this year.
As is usually the case, the House—with governing rules that make it much easier, and quicker, to pass legislation—has made far more headway than the Senate on education measures this year. In addition to the IDEA bill, the House has passed bills to reauthorize the Head Start program and the federal welfare law, as well as pieces of the Higher Education Act.
Following are status reports on major items on the congressional agenda:
Department of Education Budget
The Senate began debate last week on the spending bill that includes funding for the Department of Education. Several amendments aimed at expanding the agency's purse were rejected last week, but others were pending. As passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee, the bill contained $54.6 billion in discretionary spending for the Education Department, which is almost $800 million less than the House approved in July. Debate was likely to continue well into this week. Both the House and Senate bills exceeded President Bush's request to freeze the department's budget at $53.1 billion in fiscal 2004, which begins Oct. 1.
Both bills met or exceeded Mr. Bush's request to ratchet up spending on two of his top budgetary priorities: special education and the Title I program for disadvantaged students. However, neither chamber seemed to have much appetite for the president's effort to eliminate a host of Education Department programs he deems a low priority. Most of the programs in the Bush administration's crosshairs will likely survive the budget debate.
District of Columbia Vouchers
Efforts to enact a pilot voucher program for the District of Columbia appeared to be gaining momentum last week. On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee, by a vote of 16 to 12, passed such a measure as part of a spending bill for the District of Columbia. And the House was scheduled last Friday to vote on a similar voucher plan as part of its appropriations bill for the city.
The House measure would provide $10 million in fiscal 2004, and the Senate plan $13 million, to help children from low-income families attend private or religious schools in Washington. Priority for the vouchers, worth up to $7,500 each, would be given to children currently in low-performing public schools. ("Senate Panel Approves D.C. Voucher Measure," this issue.)
Individuals With Disabilities Education Act
The nation's main special education law is expected to make its way to the Senate floor this month or next for reauthorization.
The Senate version of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—the current name of the landmark 1975 law that guarantees the nation's now-6.5 million students with disabilities a free, appropriate public education—omits two contentious elements from the House bill. Leaders of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions introduced their version of the bill June 12.
Missing from the bipartisan Senate version is a measure that would put the burden on parents to prove, in discipline cases, that their children's disabilities caused them to break school rules. It also leaves out an extension, with parents' approval, of the interval between the writing of students' individualized education plans from one year to three. Both provisions, which are included in the House version that passed April 30, have come under fire from advocates for special education.
Other controversial topics expected in the Senate include voucher programs for special education and so-called full federal funding of the law.
Higher Education Act
Republicans are vowing to bring the K-12 mantra of "accountability" to the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act by putting more pressure on colleges and universities to control their rapidly rising prices and to make higher education more accessible.
Several bills are likely to emerge from the House during its reauthorization hearings over the next few months, but is uncertain when the Senate will act.
The House in July approved the proposed Ready to Teach Act, which would place tougher requirements on teachers' colleges for turning out qualified instructors. Also in July, the House passed a proposal that would increase the amount of federal student-loan forgiveness for teachers in certain Title I schools. Both bills await Senate action.
Earlier this year, a top GOP lawmaker on higher education issues, Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R- Calif., said he would introduce a measure that would require postsecondary institutions that impose steep tuition hikes to justify those price increases to the federal government.
In late July, a Republican-sponsored bill that would allow eight states more control over federal Head Start money narrowly passed the House.
Supporters of the proposal, called the School Readiness Act of 2003, say the plan would allow states to blend their own preschool programs with Head Start dollars for poor children, and, therefore, better serve children's needs. The bill would also place greater emphasis on early academic learning for preschoolers in the program.
Democrats and Head Start advocates argue that such a "block grant" approach would weaken the popular 38-year-old program, which now serves more than 900,000 children with educational, health, and social services.
Senate Democrats have introduced their own plan, which would aim to strengthen academics and increase credentials and wages for Head Start teachers.
The reauthorization of the 1996 federal law overhauling the welfare system is now more than a year behind schedule. While the House has passed a welfare bill that closely resembles President Bush's plan, the issue has been stalled in the Senate.
The House bill, approved in February, would increase mandatory work requirements for welfare recipients from 30 to 40 hours per week and would increase funding for child- care subsidies by $1 billion over five years. The Child Care and Development Block Grant remains at its fiscal 2002 level of $4.8 billion because of temporary extentions passed by Congress.
Democrats and some Republicans in the Senate have argued that more child-care spending is needed in order for single mothers to meet increasing work requirements, and they have pushed for as much as an $11 billion increase over five years.
Vol. 23, Issue 2, Pages 24,28