Bush, Democrats Compromise As ESEA Bills Take Shape

By Erik W. Robelen — May 16, 2001 8 min read
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The education debate echoed across both sides of the Capitol last week, as momentum continued in the House and the Senate to deliver a major education bill to President Bush’s desk this year—probably as soon as this summer—following compromises that appear to locate the bill in politically viable middle territory.

The House education committee on May 9 overwhelmingly approved its version of the legislation, embracing much, but not all, of Mr. Bush’s agenda for schools. Meanwhile, the Senate ended its second week of debate with a similar bill that still retains the essence of an earlier compromise worked out between Republicans and Democrats. Senators had voted on more than a dozen amendments as of late last week, and many more are expected as the debate resumes this week.

But many Democrats spent the week publicly fuming over separate budget legislation that, at least for now, appears to put the Congress in the position of making education promises the Treasury won’t be able to keep. Republicans, in an answer that Democrats found only mildly comforting, said that, in the end, the money would be there.

Congress is working this year to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main federal law for K-12 education. For the current budget year, fiscal 2001, Congress funded ESEA programs at about $18 billion.

The legislation that emerges may leave something to be desired from both sides of the aisle, but such is the nature of finding middle ground, lawmakers said.

“This bill is a compromise,” Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a statement following the final committee vote. “It was not written exactly as I would have written it. But it contains much of what I have fought for for more than half a decade in Congress.”

“Politics is seldom a purist exercise,” added Joe Karpinski, a spokesman for Republicans on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. “We knew there would be a lot of amendments, that there would be a back and forth. But the bipartisan spirit is holding.”

Seeking Amendments

The House and Senate bills currently exclude a feature dear to many Republicans: federally financed vouchers for students in failing public schools. But both bills would allow parents to direct a portion of the schools’ Title I aid to private tutoring.

Also, the bills would take significant steps to make federal education funding more flexible, though on that score they generate heartburn for both parties. The bills give states more flexibility than many Democrats prefer, but less than Mr. Bush and congressional Republicans want.

Despite the generally cooperative tone so far, ample time for bipartisan mischief remains.

The House as a whole was expected to take up the legislation as soon as this week, and Republicans have vowed that they will seek to reinsert vouchers and a broader block grant approach dubbed “Straight A’s.” Under the Straight A’s concept, states and districts could convert most of their ESEA funding into block grants in exchange for negotiating five-year performance agreements with the U.S. secretary of education.

And the Senate this week will continue offering a range of amendments. Democrats last week were optimistic about coaxing a few Republicans to help them keep separate programs for class-size reduction and school renovation.

The existing class-size-reduction program, long criticized by Republicans, would be consolidated into a broader teacher-quality fund for schools under the Senate bill’s current incarnation. At the same time, the bill, as it stands and as Mr. Bush recommended, would eliminate the school renovation program, created only last year.

Overall, more than 250 amendments were filed last week for possible consideration on the Senate floor, but aides say most will not actually be debated. Some of the amendments veer far away from educational terrain, dabbling in subjects as diverse as sports gambling and copyright infringement.

And once the legislation wends its way through both chambers, a group of House and Senate lawmakers will meet to hammer out the differences between their versions of the ESEA. The nature of the final product, and the breadth of the funding it authorizes, remain uncertain.

Leading Republicans in the House and the Senate have been quick to emphasize that the evolving legislation contains much of President Bush’s agenda, from flexibility and parental choice to tougher accountability and increased testing requirements.

But some argue that the most dramatic changes are already gone.

“The Congress is making a hash out of the Bush proposals,” said Chester E. Finn, Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and an assistant education secretary during the Reagan years. “I don’t see the pending legislation as any kind of sea change.”

Budget Controversy

In contrast to the largely bipartisan approach on education policy, Congress and the White House took another tack altogether on education spending.

The House and the Senate last week narrowly passed a final version of the budget resolution, legislation that guides action on spending and tax bills, with the Republicans who narrowly control the two chambers winning only a handful of Democratic supporters. The budget resolution does not require presidential approval.

Democrats and their allies in the education community argue that that plan—with a $1.35 trillion tax cut over 11 years as its centerpiece—would shortchange education, falling far short of the increases they have proposed.

Democrats were quick to note that many of their Republican counterparts have backed higher education spending in theory, voting for amendments to authorize more money under the ESEA. But when it comes to actually working those numbers into the budget, the Democrats maintain, the GOP approach is different.

“After all the Senate votes to increase investments to meet the most basic education needs, this Republican budget contains no new funds for education,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, ranking Democrat on the education committee.

But Republicans insisted that education will see more money this year.

“I just want to say that whatever the president assumed as education increases are assumed in this budget,” said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

As approved, the budget resolution provides about $1 billion less in discretionary spending for the category that includes education, training, employment, and social services—$64.4 billion—than the House version, and $10.5 billion less than in the Senate resolution. But how much of that total will go to education is still to be determined.

“We are going to have more spending for education,” said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss. “Everybody knows that; that is part of the package. I am for that.”

Language adopted on the Senate floor that would have added more than $300 billion for education over 10 years was stripped from the final plan.

Of course, the budget resolution is only the beginning of the process. Final budget figures for the Department of Education will not be known until House and Senate appropriators craft a final spending bill for education and other areas.

While President Bush has requested a $2.4 billion hike in discretionary spending for the department, the White House has reportedly indicated in talks with Democrats that it would provide a $4 billion increase for ESEA programs. Democrats say this is not enough.

Senate Amends ESEA

One of the biggest changes so far during the ESEA debate is a Senate measure to dramatically raise special education spending.

Approved on a voice vote this month, the amendment would shift spending for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act from the discretionary to the mandatory side of the budget and lock in about $181 billion over 10 years for the program. The White House opposes the change, and many congressional aides and observers predict it will be stripped out when the House and the Senate meet to work out differences between their versions of the ESEA. (“Senate Backs ‘Full Funding’ of Special Ed.,” May 9, 2001.)

Several other amendments have also been approved that would dramatically raise the authorization levels for programs such as Title I aid for disadvantaged students, teacher-quality initiatives, and bilingual education.

But the ESEA version that passed is more watered-down than the document President Bush and other Republicans wanted. Most notably, it does not contain the voucher provision, and it separated several programs that were slated for consolidation, including Safe and Drug Free Schools, Ready to Learn Television, and money available for school leadership programs.

While one of the legislation’s main thrusts is to expand flexibility for states and districts by consolidating programs, members have already carved out new ones.

For example, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., won passage of an amendment that would provide up to $25 million to help secondary school students who abuse alcohol. And Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., on a hairbreadth 50-49 vote, won passage of an amendment that calls for setting up community technology centers in schools.

Meanwhile, the House education committee passed its ESEA reauthorization bill last week by a surprisingly collegial 41-7 vote.

Opposition mainly came from a handful of conservative Republicans who protested the exclusion of vouchers for students in failing schools. That measure was stripped out during the first day of debate.

Staff Writer Joetta L. Sack contributed to this report.

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2001 edition of Education Week as Bush, Democrats Compromise As ESEA Bills Take Shape


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