Amid Crisis, Outlook for ESEA Overhaul Unclear

By Erik W. Robelen — September 26, 2001 6 min read
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As Congress resumes work in the aftermath of the recent terrorist attacks, questions loom about whether it’s still possible to send a major education bill to the president’s desk this year.

House and Senate education leaders have vowed that the events of Sept. 11 will not prevent them from pressing forward to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main federal law for K-12 education. The pending measure includes central elements of President Bush’s “Leave No Child Behind” plan.

“I definitely think we’ll complete this bill” in 2001, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the ranking minority member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee said last week, noting the strong degree of bipartisanship in the production of the bill so far. That perspective was echoed by spokesmen for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairmen, respectively, of the Senate and House education committees.

But another lawmaker who is influential in education matters was less certain about the bill’s fate in an interview last week.

Rep. George Miller

“I don’t know,” Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said when asked if he thought Congress would have a finished bill for President Bush before it adjourns this fall. “There’s going to be a lot of things that make it difficult, but we think it’s important to try.”

Money Matters

Those close to the process report some movement on budget matters that could help grease the wheels for the education bill. The Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee recently signaled that he would provide an additional $3.3 billion for education above Mr. Bush’s request, according to lobbyists and congressional aides. For Democrats, funding that they deem inadequate has been a stumbling block.

But even if spending matters can be resolved, finding time for the ESEA bill may prove difficult.

“There is talk about trying to move the education bill out,” said Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “But everything is overshadowed right now. During this period, all old bets are off.”

In addition to finishing the 13 annual spending bills that finance the federal government, Congress now has a whole new set of issues to contend with stemming from the terrorist attacks. Those include military and intelligence matters, aid for survivors and families of victims, help for the hard-hit airline industry, and a possible economic-recovery package.

Beyond those pressing matters, analysts say Congress is likely to move only on issues where lawmakers are confident that bipartisanship will prevail, as they wish to avoid bickering that could undermine support for President Bush when the country is preparing for possible military action.

“If it’s anything that looks like people will line up on different sides, forget it,” said Michael G. Franc, the vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation, another think tank in Washington.

In that light, education remains appealing, some congressional aides and observers say. After all, both the House and the Senate, earlier this year, passed versions of the ESEA with overwhelming majorities, and the president strongly supports getting it done.

“This is an issue Republicans and Democrats were working constructively to address prior to September 11,” said David Schnittger, a spokesman for Mr. Boehner, the House education committee chairman.

And many lawmakers argue that it is important to signal that terrorism will not impede important work on the homefront.

Differences Remain

But beyond spending, significant differences in the House and Senate versions of the education bill remain unresolved, such as how to define a “failing” school and how much consolidation of programs should take place.

The recent events have understandably impeded the ability of Congress to focus on education. Lawmakers, for example, canceled a meeting of the 39-member House-Senate conference committee on the ESEA that had been planned for Sept. 13. That meeting was rescheduled for Sept. 25.

Meanwhile, the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees education is also expected to convene this week to take action on a budget bill, a meeting originally set for last week.

That subcommittee may take actions that could help with the parallel ESEA process. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, recently indicated that he was prepared to provide $3.3 billion more than the $44.5 billion President Bush requested for the Department of Education for fiscal 2002. Coupled with the president’s request, the increase from fiscal 2001, which ends Sept. 30, would climb by close to $6 billion.

But nothing is final, and it remains to be seen whether the additional money contemplated by Mr. Young would satisfy Democrats, who maintain that the higher demands for student achievement imposed through both the House and Senate ESEA bills require substantially more federal dollars.

Asked about the $3.3 billion figure, Rep. Miller simply said: “It’s heading in the right direction.”

If that amount is not enough to satisfy Democrats, recent developments suggest there could yet be further wiggle room than anticipated just recently.

One political obstacle that now appears to have vanished is the so-called Social Security “lockbox.” The idea, embraced by both Democrats and Republicans during the 2000 election year, is that surplus Social Security revenues should not be used for other spending, but only to pay down the national debt.

In late August, the Congressional Budget Office came out with a revised budget forecast suggesting that, because of tax cuts and a faltering economy, the non-Social Security surplus was virtually gone.

President Bush has said the lockbox should not apply in times of war or recession, and he suggested last week that, given the current national-security and economic picture, now was an appropriate time to tap into those funds.

“The good news is that for education ... there’s no Social Security lockbox,” said Marshall Wittmann, an expert on Congress in the Washington office of the Hudson Institute, an Indianapolis-based research organization. “Yes, there are more expenses, but there’s going to be a drive both for guns and butter.”

Bush’s Radar Screen

For his part, President Bush has shifted his focus away from education to concentrate on the more pressing matters growing from the terrorist attacks. But last week, the White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer, stressed that Mr. Bush still wants to see Congress complete the education bill, even if his personal attention is directed at other matters.

Describing a Cabinet meeting several days after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Mr. Fleischer said: “He called on them to get [legislation] done, including education reform, which the president reminded them remains a top priority domestically.”

Getting the legislation done has proved to be a tortuous process, given the complexity and numerous distinctions between the House and Senate bills. Congressional aides have put together a five-volume set—almost 1,300 pages in all—of side-by-side comparisons of the two versions of the bill.

Amy Wilkins, a policy analyst with the Education Trust, a research and advocacy group here, said she hopes that quality is not sacrificed for speed.

“My worry is that ... education policy and detail may get lost in the rush to send a message about unity,” she said.


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