Early last year, a group of moderate Democratic senators thought they had crafted the perfect compromise plan to overhaul federal K-12 programs.
The bill, known as the Public Education Reinvestment, Reinvention, and Responsibility Act, or “Three R’s,” received praise from liberals and conservatives alike for proposing to increase funding in exchange for demanding greater accountability and consolidating many programs.
But when it finally came to a vote last summer, as an amendment to a larger education package to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the New Democrats’ measure garnered a paltry 13 votes.
The Three R’s bill might have quietly passed into oblivion except for two things. Its chief sponsor, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., was tapped to become Vice President Al Gore’s running mate during last year’s presidential campaign. And the eventual winner of that election, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, pitched a plan that was strikingly similar in some ways to the Three R’s.
Now, Sen. Lieberman, back from his narrow loss for the vice presidency, is trying to use his increased stature in the Senate to inject his ideas into this year’s version of the Senate’s ESEA reauthorization. Two of his Democratic colleagues, Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana and Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, are collaborating in that effort.
“I don’t expect anybody’s proposal is going to pass as is, but I think that if Congress adopts an education reform authorization this year that’s signed by the president, it’s going be something quite like our Three R’s bill,” Mr. Lieberman said in a March 9 interview in his Capitol Hill office. “We are at this point very hopeful, because we feel the debate is really moving to the center.” (See excerpts, next page.)
The Three R’s bill would increase the $42.1 billion fiscal 2001 education budget by at least $35 billion over five years, targeting most of the new money to needy schools. It would also consolidate nearly all federal K-12 programs into five areas: closing the achievement gap between children of different social and racial backgrounds, improving teacher quality, fostering English proficiency, promoting public school choice, and helping districts create innovative initiatives at the local level. While schools would gain much more spending flexibility, they would have to meet specific performance standards to receive the money.
The flexibility and accountability components bear some resemblance to the “No Child Left Behind” education agenda that President Bush unveiled during his first week in office. And the White House is paying attention.
“We think there’s a lot of merit to these proposals,” Sandy Kress, an education adviser to the president, said. “We credit Three R’s with playing a big part in moving us to where we are today.”
Lost His Spark?
Mr. Lieberman, who was re-elected to a third Senate term last fall, has a reputation as a scholarly New Englander who isn’t afraid to buck his party’s positions. On education, for example, he has supported small-scale voucher experiments for impoverished students in failing schools.
He spent six years as the chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist group that was once headed by President Clinton, before handing the reins to Sen. Bayh last month. But it wasn’t until he was chosen by Mr. Gore to run on the 2000 Democratic ticket that he became a household name.
Now, some education lobbyists believe Mr. Lieberman’s higher visibility will help propel the New Democratic viewpoint into the final ESEA reauthorization legislation.
“He left as a leader, and I believe he’s come back even stronger,” said Mary Elizabeth Teasley, the manager of federal relations for the National Education Association.
But some others, particularly those who had welcomed his openness to vouchers, say they’re disappointed that Mr. Lieberman has downplayed that position recently.
“One of the things that made him unique was that he was willing to stand up and be different, and he seems to have lost that spark,” said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based group that advocates school choice. “I’m sure he’s effective as a leader, but I don’t see him as the heir apparent on education issues in the Senate as he should be.”
Some observers on the liberal side of the political spectrum, meanwhile, say the DLC is not leading at all. Robert B. Reich, a former labor secretary under President Clinton, assailed the group in an op-ed essay published March 11 in The Washington Post.
“The DLC stands for nothing, nada, zero, except it’s anti-union,” Mr. Reich wrote. “No one out in America cares about the DLC.”
Holding Back on Vouchers
Sen. Lieberman will not be in the midst of the action on the education bill, as he does not serve on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which has already approved an ESEA plan based on President Bush’s proposals.
Ms. Teasley, though, pointed out that with the Senate evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, the moderates from both parties will likely be casting the tie- breaking votes.
And William A. Galston, a professor of public affairs at the University of Maryland who formerly served as an adviser to President Clinton, said moderate Democrats in particular would likely look to Sen. Lieberman for leadership on the issue of vouchers for low-income students.
Mr. Lieberman said he chose not to include vouchers in the Three R’s bill “because I’ve concluded, having worked on it for three or four years, that it could bring down the whole attempt to pass a broad education reform and improvement bill.”
The Bush administration has proposed providing vouchers of about $1,500 each to the parents of students in Title I schools that are identified as failing for three straight years; the money could be used for private school tuition, remedial help or tutoring, or other costs associated with school choice.
Sen. Lieberman said he believes that plan would take money away from public schools, and he contends that it represents a “surrender” on those schools.
Mr. Lieberman, meanwhile, acknowledges that he is still a little downhearted about the final outcome of the fiercely contested 2000 election, but he says he is still very much enamored with serving as a senator.
“Where there’s common ground, as there appears to be in education, I’m not going to let the fact that I ran for national office last year prevent me from occupying that common ground,” he said. “On the other hand, if there’s not common ground, I’m going to stand my ground against the Bush White House.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as Democrats’ ‘Three R’s’ Bill Regains Currency