Congress Refocuses on ESEA, But Much Left to Resolve

By Erik W. Robelen — October 03, 2001 3 min read

Congress officially resumed work on education last week when members of a House-Senate conference ratified some of the less controversial elements of a bill to overhaul the federal role in K-12 schools, including President Bush’s prized Reading First program.

The meeting was previously scheduled for Sept. 13, just two days after the terrorist attacks that have since radically altered the agendas of both the president and Congress.

“We’re sending a message to the nation and the world that America’s domestic-policy agenda is moving forward,” Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said last week.

But even as lawmakers sealed deals on, among other provisions, reading, after-school programs, and charter and magnet schools—elements of a larger bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—some of the details of those very programs were not fully determined.

Reps. George Miller and John A. Boehner listen as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy discusses the ESEA bill as the House and Senate conference committee meets for the first time since the terrorist attacks.
—Allison Shelley/Education Week

The legislative language was peppered with the occasional “HOLD” printed in bold letters. For example, committee members did not agree on how much money to authorize for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which provides federal grants for before- and after-school services. The House version would provide $900 million in fiscal 2002; the Senate proposes $1.5 billion.

“Even for the things they said are resolved, there are many things unresolved,” said Joel Packer, a senior lobbyist for the National Education Association.

Congress, in fact, still has a long way to go if it is to deliver an education bill to the president this year. The House and the Senate passed competing versions of the ESEA last spring by overwhelming majorities. While the bills have much in common and contain key pieces of Mr. Bush’s education agenda, conference- committee members still have difficult issues to resolve in reconciling the 1,000-plus-page bills, such as how to define “failing” schools and how many federal programs to consolidate.

Another critical concern for Democrats is how much money the president will agree to spend. They say his $44.5 billion request for the Department of Education’s fiscal 2002 budget—an increase of about $2.3 billion over the 2001 department appropriation—falls far short, given the increased demands for states and school districts to improve student achievement.

As of late last week, the House and Senate still had not taken action on the spending bill that contains the Department of Education budget. With the new fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, both chambers have approved a continuing resolution to keep the government running through Oct. 16.

Otherwise Engaged

Wading through contention is not the only problem in completing the final version of the ESEA. The sheer volume of the House and Senate bills makes for a heavy workload. For example, the conferees still haven’t produced agreements on an array of other programs, from teacher quality and bilingual education to technology and safe schools.

Rep. Boehner said last week that panel members had made “considerable progress” in a number of areas, though he declined to be very specific. Lobbyists said that congressional aides have been tight-lipped about what deals are in the works.

One challenge has been getting members together for the large conference-committee sessions, given the urgency of other issues in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

More than a dozen of the panel’s 39 members did not show up at all on Wednesday of last week. And some House members hustled out shortly after the meeting began to catch an afternoon briefing by Secretary of State Colin Powell on matters related to the attacks.

Some analysts have begun to question whether Congress can finish the ESEA revision this year, considering the many other pressing matters now facing federal lawmakers. (“Amid Crisis, Outlook for ESEA Overhaul Unclear,” Sept. 26, 2001.)

But House and Senate leaders on the conference committee have vowed to forge ahead, with strong encouragement from President Bush. Mr. Boehner said that another meeting was scheduled for this week, involving more extensive debate on subjects unresolved by staff.

Among the provisions agreed to last week was Mr. Bush’s $900 million Reading First program, which would encourage states and districts to set up research-based reading programs for children in grades K-3. They also agreed to create Early Reading First, with fiscal 2002 funding of $75 million, to enhance children’s reading readiness in high-poverty areas.