104th Congress Shifts Terms of School Debate

By Mark Pitsch — January 10, 1996 9 min read
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The Republican congressional majority that took office in January 1995 built its agenda around an ambitious effort to reduce the scope and reach of the federal government.

While education issues were not high on the GOP priority list, the party’s budget plans called for scuttling or crippling Clinton administration initiatives such as Goals 2000, AmeriCorps, and direct college loans, and reducing other education spending. Legislation to replace scores of programs with block grants was debated, and hearings were held on proposals to scrap the Department of Education.

Meanwhile, conservatives pressed for a constitutional amendment protecting prayer in public schools and parental-rights legislation.

A year later, the Education Department is still there, although it has been partially shut down by the impasse over the federal budget--a fitting symbol of the status of the GOP education agenda.

Budgetary Stall

The fate of some significant initiatives--including welfare reform and a school-voucher program for the District of Columbia--hangs in the balance as congressional leaders and President Clinton continue budget negotiations, as do GOP efforts to cut spending.

While the Republicans have been unsuccessful on most counts, at least so far, most observers agree that the 104th Congress has raised new questions about the proper federal role in education.

“In terms of what they said they were going to do, they didn’t accomplish anything to the letter. But they got the issues out there,” said Patty Sullivan, a senior policy analyst for the National Governors’ Association. “We’ve seen a shift in the terms of the debate. We’ve seen a shift in the rhetoric. And we’ve seen a shift in the mindset regarding what role the federal government might have.”

This year’s legislative session is likely to feature the same budgetary battles and rhetorical themes. And GOP leaders will still face the difficulty of mustering the votes needed to overcome Senate filibusters and presidential vetoes.

The legislative focus in 1995 was on the budget, as congressional leaders proposed large spending cuts and major programmatic changes to balance the federal ledger in seven years.

For education spending, House appropriators proposed a $3.5 billion decrease in fiscal 1996, which began Oct. 1, and their Senate counterparts offered a $2 billion reduction from the 1995 mark of $26.7 billion. But the Senate legislation never made it to the floor, as lawmakers could not agree on language on abortion and rules preventing federal contractors from replacing striking workers.

Observers expect education spending to be set only as part of the ongoing, marathon negotiations over a long-term balanced-budget plan. (See story, page 24.)

Other issues are tied up in that debate, as they are provisions of a budget-reconciliation bill that would make changes in entitlement programs to help balance the budget. The version of the bill President Clinton vetoed last month contained proposals to cut subsidies for school meals and student loans, as well as a broad welfare-reform package.

A House proposal to end the federal school-lunch entitlement and replace school-meals programs with block grants--perhaps the year’s most controversial education-related proposal--was also tied to the reconciliation bill.

But senators refused to accept the House plan, and lawmakers agreed late last month to a compromise that would allow up to seven states to choose to run their programs under block grants. (See story, page 24.)


A package of school-reform proposals for the District of Columbia schools, including vouchers for low-income students that could be used at private or parochial schools, is also tied to the budget battle, because it is attached to the appropriations bill for the capital city.

That bill may pass before resolution of the larger budgetary disputes, if lawmakers can come up with a compromise on the voucher plan. House Republicans insist on including the provision but Democrats and key GOP senators oppose it. (See story, page 25.)

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., championed the legislation. And Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis., who crafted the reform package, hinted last week that the GOP may propose a broader voucher program this year.

“There clearly is a discussion, in a much bigger context around here, that is looking at empowerment,” Mr. Gunderson said.

Many observers expect the gop’s congressional leaders and 1996 presidential candidates to highlight issues such as school choice, prayer in public schools, homosexual teachers, and bilingual education in an effort to appeal to conservative voters.

“Are those issues going to come up? I’m sure they will,” said Jim Hirni, a research assistant with the Center on Educational Law and Policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative, Washington-based think tank. “Will they get shot down in committee or subcommittee? Maybe. But the Republicans are going to raise these issues” in 1996.

Indeed, many observers of the current budget battle predict that a synergy will develop this year between campaign rhetoric and debate on Capitol Hill. (See Education Week, Nov. 29, 1995.)

For his part, President Clinton has made “adequate” funding of education programs a budget priority, and he has successfully used public opposition to education cuts to move public-opinion polls against GOP budget plans--a strategy he may stick with during his re-election campaign.

At the same time, his Republican rivals have used calls for a reduced federal role in education to appeal to voters wary of federal influence. And most observers expect proposals to scale down the federal role in education to get more attention this year.

Block Grants

One such initiative, a measure that would consolidate more than 90 vocational-education and job-training programs into one or more block grants, is well on its way. A conference committee to reconcile measures passed by the House and Senate last year could get under way this month. (See Education Week, Oct. 18, 1995.)

But more controversial consolidation plans are on the horizon.

House GOP freshmen have introduced a bill that would phase out the Education Department and replace almost all K-12 programs with a block grant. They promise to give the legislation a high profile this spring in an effort to make closing the department a presidential-campaign issue.

Meanwhile, Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee, has signed on to Mr. Gunderson’s proposal to merge the Education Department with the Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

And the chairman’s staff has been working on a plan that would combine many education programs, including the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, into a block grant.

Aides said that this proposal may serve as the foundation for an omnibus education bill that would also include amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which is scheduled for reauthorization, and changes in bilingual-education programs to encourage students to move from “dependence on another language to fluency in English as quickly as possible.” (See Education Week, Aug. 2, 1995.)

Some observers characterized that idea as an attempt to gain leverage over opponents of the block-grant plan by holding the idea hostage and pressure the Senate to adopt such a measure.

The chief issue in the idea debate is likely to remain how much latitude educators should have to discipline violent or disruptive disabled students. (See Education Week, Nov. 29 and Dec. 13, 1995.)

Mr. Goodling told reporters last month that he also hopes to revise the funding formula for the Title I compensatory-education program. After much wrangling, lawmakers voted in 1994 to target to the neediest districts only funding above 1995 levels. But with funding decreases expected, the new formula will essentially be negated. (See Education Week, Oct. 25, 1995.)

In an interview, Mr. Goodling said his committee will undertake a thorough review of Title I, and will consider formula revisions only after “finding out if the program has any value.”

He said the education panel will also hold hearings on the cost of higher education and on what works in public schools.

Changing the Debate

Some conservatives said the GOP did not take advantage of its historic opportunity to enact broad changes.

“It’s been a huge disappointment,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., a fellow at the Hudson Institute, an Indianapolis-based conservative think tank and a former assistant secretary of education. “There’s been no fundamental devolution, there’s been no fundamental rewriting of federal education programs, there’s been no elimination of programs.”

But other observers say the GOP Congress has already had an enormous impact on federal education policy simply by changing the terms of the debate.

“We’re in the middle of a historic shift, and the only thing it can be compared to in recent times is [the] New Deal in the 1930s,” said Mark Weston, the state-services coordinator of the Education Commission of the States, a clearinghouse based in Denver. “What’s happening is Republicans are challenging a major component of the government, and education is a central part of that.”

The gop’s proposed spending cuts have forced advocates of federal education programs to reassess them in the public arena. While the only question surrounding most programs’ annual appropriations was once the size of their increases, they must now fight for survival.

“Even before the numbers are in, this Congress is much more results-oriented than the previous Congress. We want to see the money do some good,” said Rep. John Edward Porter, R-Ill., who chairs the House appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education.

The proposed budget cuts and the debate over the federal role have left school officials across the country wondering whether federal programs will continue to be funded.

“The debate has caused a great stir in the education community, not knowing how to plan for the coming years,” said Dominic A. Palazzolo, the principal of Yake Elementary School in Woodhaven, Mich., and the president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

"[Republicans] keep claiming the states are going to take care of us,” he said. “We at the local level know better. When the pinch comes in the states, they won’t have any money.”

And the debate on the federal role has also blunted the impact of Goals 2000, which provides grants to states and school districts to enact standards-based reforms, and the 1994 Title I amendments, which sought to link the program to the academic-standards movement.

“There’s an attitudinal shift at the state and local level,” said Michael Kirst, an education professor at Stanford University in California. “They’re unsure of the continuity of federal policy.”

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