Bush’s Long-Awaited Education Plan Greeted With Skepticism in Congress

By Julie A. Miller — April 12, 1989 5 min read

Washington--President Bush last week unveiled legislation to enact most of the $441 million in education initiatives that he proposed as part of his 1990 budget.

“We’re going to take action to make excellence in education not just a rallying cry, but a classroom reality,” the President said. But he acknowledged that his proposals “don’t constitute a cure-all, a quick fix for whatever ails our education system.”

Mr. Bush signed documents transmitting the plan to the Congress at a White House ceremony honoring the national “Teacher of the Year.”

Rewards for “Merit Schools” that have shown academic and other improvements, authorized at $250 million in 1990 and rising to $500 million for 1993;

$100 million in magnet-schools aid that would not be limited to districts undergoing desegregation;

$25 million to aid states in developing alternative certification routes for teachers and administrators;

$25 million for “emergency” anti-drug grants for urban school districts;

$10 million for an endowment program for historically black colleges.

$8 million for Presidential awards for exemplary teachers; and

$5 million for college scholarships for outstanding mathematics and science students.

Mr. Bush also proposed adding $13 million to an existing discretionary fund for “innovative” projects and $5 million to education programs for homeless children and adults.

The proposals were included in4the budget released by Mr. Bush in February, but the legislation provided some details on how the reward programs would work.

Half of the Merit Schools funds, for example, would be allocated to states on the basis of on school-age population; the other half would be based on the number of children eligible for Chapter 1 compensatory-education services.

States would set the criteria for selecting schools, which would be chosen by a panel of precollegiate educators, college faculty members and administrators, parents, and representatives of state agencies, labor unions, and business.

The Secretary of Education, however, would set minimum standards for “improving educational performance,” for maintaining a “safe environment” free of drugs, and for reduction in dropout rates.

States would have to consider goals set by schools for their Chapter 1 programs, as required by last year’s omnibus education law. They could not reward any school whose program was singled out for improvement under the law.

States would also set the criteria for choosing the recipients of Presidential teacher awards. States would receive allocations based on their teacher populations, with each state guaranteed enough to make at least one $5,000 award. Winners would be chosen by a panel appointed by the governor in consultation with the chief state school officer.

The Bush legislation was introduced in the Senate by Senator Nan8cy L. Kassebaum of Kansas, ranking Republican on the education subcommittee, and in the House by Representative Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, ranking Republican on the Education and Labor Committee.

It attracted 34 co-sponsors in the Senate and 73 in the House, including both chambers’ minority leaders and most gop members of education panels. Only two Democrats signed on, however: Senator David L. Boren of Oklahoma and Representative Bill Grant of Florida.

The reaction on Capitol Hill was likewise largely partisan. Democrats criticized the package as a meager addition to a budget that, even with the proposed new spending, would not provide enough funding to keep up with inflation.

Administration officials have said they support the Education Department budget submitted by President Reagan, which would freeze the department’s allocation at the 1989 level of $21.9 billion while cutting some programs to hike spending on others.

Mr. Bush’s budget plan calls for holding total discretionary domestic spending to $136 billion, leaving decisions on specific cuts to be made in negotiations with the Congress.

Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, the California Democrat who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, said Mr. Bush “is attempting to strip programs long supported by Congress to pay for new initiatives of questionable value.” The plan, he charged, would “do more harm than good to education.”

Senator Claiborne Pell, chairman of the Senate education subcommittee, called Mr. Bush’s plan “a constructive approach to advance excellence in education.” But the Rhode Island Democrat also termed it “disappointing,” and said that “any serious education package must begin with significant increases in the [current] need-based programs.”

Representatives of the education community said some of the President’s ideas had merit, but that the plan was inadequate. The money, they said, would be better spent on existing programs.

“It is so small and circumscribed that it is doubtful that five years from now we will be able to tell that he did anything positive for American public education,” said Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

“There’s certainly something attractive about districts being able to compete for a chunk of unspecified money to enhance their programs,’' said Edward R. Kealy, director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association, “but this is in lieu of [funding] a host of programs we fought hard for.”

Lobbyists and Congressional aides from both parties agreed that some, but not all, of the proposals were likely to be enacted in amended form.

Aides said it would be “hard to be against” additional anti-drug funds, awards for teachers, or science scholarships--especially when each lawmaker would be able to “recommend” one scholar.

Several also said an alternative-certification initiative might be considered as part of planned legislation aimed at improving the status of teaching.

But aides agreed that the Merit Schools plan would have to be more specifically targeted at low-achieving schools serving the disadvantaged in order to pass Congressional muster.

“If it’s viewed as a reward for already outstanding, rich districts, it will go nowhere,” said a Democratic Senate aide. “It has to be an incentive for districts that need the money.”

Aides said the magnet-schools plan faces an obstacle in Mr. Hawkins, who led opposition to a similar plan last year. The Bush bill would require applicant districts to “demonstrate” that their projects would not result in segregation, but aides said that provision was unlikely to satisfy critics.

A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 1989 edition of Education Week as Bush’s Long-Awaited Education Plan Greeted With Skepticism in Congress