When members of Congress returned here last week, they faced the same pressing questions on education that they did when the Capitol emptied out for the August recess.
How much spending should they authorize for K-12 programs, particularly special education?
How much flexibility should they give state and local officials in using federal money?
And—perhaps most perplexing of all—how can they devise a method that gives a fair estimate of whether a school is failing?
None of the leading players in the search for those answers knows exactly how or even when the matters will be settled. They just know that they’ll spend much of the fall trying to reach a deal.
“There are some difficult issues that remain,” said Sandy Kress, President Bush’s chief education adviser. “People are going to have to work together, compromise on this and that. There’s going to have to be a significant effort” to get a bill reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act completed.
Mr. Kress said the administration hopes for a “flurry of activity over the next few weeks” so the bill can pass in September.
But most Washington observers say the political stakes are high enough for Mr. Bush and for congressional Democrats, in particular, that the negotiations will last well into the fall.
“It’s a big bill with a lot of tough issues to resolve,” said Vic Klatt, a former aide to House Republicans and now an education lobbyist. “It’s just going to take awhile.”
Earlier in the summer, the House and the Senate passed their versions of a bill to reauthorize the ESEA with overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans. While Congress vacationed for most of August, staff members met to reconcile minor differences between the two bills, what Washington insiders call “clearing out the underbrush.”
Most of the noncontroversial issues have been settled, according to Mr. Kress and Jim Manley, a spokesman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
But most of the large issues within Title I—the program for disadvantaged students—have yet to be resolved.
And though the two bills have bipartisan support, reaching a compromise won’t be easy.
In trying to decide the law’s accountability measures, for example, negotiators must come up with a formula that defines what makes a failing school. Under the bills’ current definitions, almost every school would be labeled as failing over a five-year period. In response to criticism, aides are looking for new ways to define failing schools without setting expectations that are seen as unreasonable. Mr. Kress said that staff members have made “a little progress” toward defining “adequate yearly progress,” but said that the issue will probably be one of the last decided.
At Odds Over Funding
On the funding front, the Bush administration is fighting to curb the Senate’s plan to raise federal special education spending by locking in increases totaling $181 billion over the next decade.
Administration officials argued last week that they don’t want to lock in such funding until Congress makes changes to improve special education, as it is scheduled to do in reauthorizing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act next year.
But Democrats and some school officials say they might not support the ESEA bill if it doesn’t include a big increase in IDEA money, said Bruce Hunter, a lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators.
While the content of the K-12 bill remains up in the air, so does the question of when it will be ready to be passed. The reauthorization could become a hostage to what is shaping up as a nasty and protracted fight over the federal budget.
The Bush administration wants an education bill for the president’s signature as quickly as possible. But Democrats have every incentive to wait until Congress and the White House work out deals on separate appropriations bills to allocate money from a rapidly dwindling pool.
Spending levels for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 will probably be one of the final issues settled before Congress recesses for the year, said Mr. Manley, the spokesman for Sen. Kennedy.
But Mr. Kress is urging Democrats to pass the ESEA bill before then so school administrators can get to work on complying with it.
“These reforms need to be done irrespective of how the exact appropriations work out,” he said.