Compromise Sought On School Construction Money

By Joetta L. Sack — March 29, 2000 2 min read

A pair of House lawmakers have created a bipartisan plan that they hope will break Congress’ three-year logjam over federal aid for school construction.

The plan, proposed by Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, and Rep. Nancy L. Johnson of Connecticut, a Republican member of the committee, would create low-interest bonds that would pay for an estimated $24.8 billion in school construction and renovation costs over five years.

They will attempt to attach their measure to GOP-backed education-savings-account legislation when it comes for a vote before the full House as early as this week.

The bill, which would expand tax-free savings accounts to include a wide range of K-12 expenses, passed the Ways and Means Committee by a 21-16 vote last week. The measure already includes a more modest construction provision that would change current tax laws to save districts money on the interest they pay on bonds.

The Rangel-Johnson proposal failed to win the support of Republican leaders of the committee, and it was defeated it by a voice vote.

Both school construction, a Democratic priority, and education-savings accounts, a Republican priority, have risen to the top of the respective parties’ education agendas since they were first proposed three years ago. So far, neither initiative has gained enough bipartisan support to become law on its own.

Privately, some lobbyists speculate that the two proposals could win passage if they were joined in a compromise bill. They note that this is the last year in office for both President Clinton and some key congressional Republicans, a fact that might make the two sides more willing to work together.

“It’s unlikely that the president would sign any bill that has large tax breaks without a way to pay for it,” said one Democratic aide. “But there’s certainly room for compromise.”

Administration Backing

The Rangel-Johnson plan is very similar to the school-construction initiative President Clinton has proposed for the past three years, and it was immediately endorsed by Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley at a Capitol Hill event. Both versions would provide federal tax credits to bond buyers to pay the interest costs on the $24.8 billion in bonds.

The compromise legislation would stipulate that 60 percent of the funds would be allocated to states based on their school-age populations, while 40 percent would be allocated directly to districts, according to the Title I formula. About $2.4 billion would be set aside to expand the Qualified Zone Academy Bond program. (“Few Takers So Far for Low-Interest Renovation Bonds,” March 15, 2000.)

The initiative’s supporters believe they have secured enough GOP votes in the House to ensure that the measure would pass. “If members have a chance to vote on it, I think we would have a good shot,” said Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union.

A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 2000 edition of Education Week as Compromise Sought On School Construction Money