Congress Set to Pass Sweeping Education Bill

By Erik W. Robelen — December 12, 2001 7 min read
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House and Senate lawmakers have cleared the way for passage of legislation to overhaul the main federal law for K-12 education, after a key panel overwhelmingly approved the bipartisan package Dec. 11.

The bill, which would set new demands for states and school districts to improve student achievement, now goes before the full House and Senate, where it is expected to be approved in short order before heading to the White House.

President Bush issued a statement praising the lawmakers for “agreeing on a series of profound reforms to help provide our children the best education possible.”

“I urge members of the House and Senate to act soon and send me this legislation,” he said, “so that states and school districts can begin implementing these important reforms.”

The White House and congressional architects of the bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act say its central thrusts are to bolster academic achievement and close the nagging gap in achievement between disadvantaged students and their better-off peers.

It would require states and school districts to gradually demonstrate progress toward ensuring all students are academically proficient-as defined by each state-within 12 years. It calls for statewide testing in reading and mathematics each year in grades 3-8; increases flexibility-especially for districts-in spending federal aid; and provides new options to children in persistently poor-performing schools.

“This, I think, is legislation that has been bipartisan in the best sense of the word,” said Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. “I think we have a bill that we can be proud of. I also think we have a bill that will work.”

One major sticking point had been Democrats’ demand for more funding-beyond sizable increases already approved in separate appropriations bills passed by both chambers-but they apparently abandoned that effort as the year ebbed and the bill in all other respects was ready to go. In any case, the Democrats had already made significant gains on the spending front, having persuaded President Bush several months ago to make an extra $4 billion available for education.

Former Chairman Unhappy

The plan to reauthorize the ESEA was passed on a voice vote by a 39-member panel of House and Senate lawmakers. That conference committee had been assigned to reconcile differences between the two chambers’ versions of the ESEA legislation. But at least two members of the panel, Sens. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., and James M. Jeffords, I-Vt., said they would not support the final bill when it comes before the Senate because it excluded a plan to lock in big spending increases for special education.

“I feel very strongly that what we have done, without the funding, is going to be counterproductive and very discouraging,” said Sen. Jeffords, who was the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee until he announced plans earlier this year to quit the Republican Party. His decision to become an Independent, and support the Democrats in votes to organize the Senate’s governance, flipped the balance of power in the Senate to the Democrats.

But other members who backed the special education provision argued that, on balance, the bill was still worth supporting, even if funding levels for special education and other ESEA provisions would not be as high as they had hoped.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the current chairman of the Senate education committee, pointed to provisions in the bill that would expand opportunities for educators’ professional development, provide money to help schools reduce class sizes, and expand and strengthen after-school programs. He also said that the bill would better target federal resources at the neediest children and provide new support and resources for failing schools.

“I regret that we are not going to be able to reach all of the children that could benefit from these kinds of programs,” he said. “We will see a significant increase in the resources.” But he vowed that Democrats would push again next year for more money.

“We’re going to have to battle next year, and the year after. That’s the way this process works,” Sen. Kennedy said.The debate over special education had been one of the thorniest matters to resolve in the conference committee. The Senate bill contained a provision that would have shifted funding under a separate law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, from the “discretionary” to the “mandatory” side of the federal budget, thus avoiding the annual appropriations process and locking in increases for years to come.

After such a proposal was defeated by the conference committee Nov. 30, a leading proponent of the budget change, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, made a last- ditch effort at the final meeting on Dec. 11. Responding to GOP complaints that approving the mandatory-spending proposal would reduce the incentive to overhaul the IDEA, which is up for reauthorization next year, Mr. Harkin offered a revised proposal that would not kick in until Congress reauthorized the IDEA or the beginning of fiscal 2003 (next Oct. 1), whichever came first.

“I think we all agree that full funding is the right thing to do. It seems that … our disagreement arose over how, and most importantly, when full funding [should occur],” Sen. Harkin said.

But many Republicans were not persuaded by Mr. Harkin’s new offer, which was opposed by President Bush.

“To move the account from discretionary to mandatory is not a fight over whether special education is going to be funded,” said Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the ranking Republican on the Senate education committee. “It is a smoke screen to allow the appropriations committee to free up $7 billion under the [budget] caps that they can spend however they want. This is a technical, inside-the-Beltway game.”

Indeed, several Democrats have suggested that the proposed budget change would allow Congress to shift the discretionary dollars set aside for special education to other programs, especially the Title I program for disadvantaged students.

Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said Congress had made significant strides in recent years in providing more federal money for special education.

“Since 1995, we have worked in a bipartisan fashion to increase funding for IDEA dramatically,” he said, suggesting the state grants under the progam had risen by 173 percent.

“Let’s be honest about this,” Rep. Boehner added. “Last year, when we didn’t step up to meet our commitment for IDEA, we just happened to find room for a [new] $1.2 billion school construction program.” That program was a top priority of Sen. Harkin and other Democrats.

Sen. Harkin’s revised amendment, while approved on the Senate side of the conference committee by all Democrats and four Republicans, was defeated by House Republicans, who had an 8-6 majority on the House portion of the conference committee. For an agreement to be included in the final bill, a majority of the conferees in both chambers must agree to it.

Private Tutoring

Some Republicans were especially enthusiastic about provisions in the bill that would allow parents new options when a poor-performing school failed to make sufficient progress over time. After two consecutive years of not making adequate progress, a school would have to provide public school choice. After three years, parents could direct a portion of the school’s Title I aid to pay for private tutoring.

Republicans said that the tutoring would kick in as soon as next fall at schools the Department of Education has already identified as failing. For example, Republican aides estimate that about 3,000 schools would have to begin providing tutoring or other supplemental services for the next school year.

"[This bill] will mean new options for students in failing public schools, including public charter school choice and supplemental educational services from private providers, options that many will be able to use as soon as this coming August,” said Rep. Boehner.

The bill is facing some opposition from national groups involved in education issues. For example, both the American Association of School Administrators and National School Boards Association have indicated they will oppose the bill, citing especially the exclusion of the provision to make special education spending mandatory.

Mary Conk, a legislative specialist at the AASA, also said she thought the bill is heavy-handed. “We’re just federalizing a lot of these things,” she said.

The bill’s new requirements, including the expanded testing, have especially riled the National Conference of State Legislatures, which sent a scathing letter to Congress in September about the bill. Sandy Kress, President Bush’s chief education adviser, met earlier this month with NCSL members who were in Washington.

Asked whether recent developments-or Mr. Kress’ talk-had changed their minds, state Sen. Jane L. Krentz, D-Minn., and the chairwoman of the NCSL’s education, labor, and workforce development committee, said no. She said the group’s leaders, both Republicans and Democrats, were unanimous in their displeasure.

“We do not like this bill, from what we know about it right now” she said last week. “It’s more an issue of states’ responsibilities versus the feds, and us being really, really tired of unfunded mandates.”


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