New Congress Gets Ready To Grapple With Debates Over Student Aid, Goals

By Julie A. Miller — January 30, 1991 11 min read

Washington--The 102nd Congress is beginning its work with a full slate of education-related issues, ranging from the practical troubles of ailing student-aid programs and poor families to a potential political fight over national education goals.

Grappling with those issues will be new leadership in the House, where the Education and Labor Committee and its elementary and secondary education subcommittee have new chairmen.

The Bush Administration will also have a new education leader to advocate its positions on the Hill. Lawmakers are generally pleased with the choice of former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee to be the new Secretary of Education, and several expressed hope that Mr. Alexander can help forge a more cooperative relationship between the Administration and the Congress.

Lawmakers and Congressional aides also said they were encouraged by reports that the Administration is interested in making fundamental changes in higher-education programs, which are set to be reauthorized this session.

“There’s a historic opportunity here, and I could blow it if I’m not careful,” said Representative William D. Ford, the Michigan Democrat who is the new chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. ''The times in history when we have made progress on problems in education were times when people in Congress could work with people from the White House.”

The first education issue on the agenda will be a noncontroversial one: the confirmation of Mr. Alexander. Aides said he is likely to be confirmed easily next month. Some predicted that the vote could even be unanimous.

However, Congressional Democrats appear to be headed for clashes with the Administration over civil rights, the monitoring of national progress on education, and the Administration’s “educational excellence” proposals, particularly an expected initiative to support school choice.

Some of the first battles are likely to be over two measures vetoed by President Bush last year: a civil-rights bill that would make it easier for workers to charge their employers with discrimination and legislation that would require major employers to give workers unpaid leave for the birth of a child or a serious illness.

Mr. Ford and Senator George J. Mitchell of Maine, the Senate Majority Leader, said the family-leave bill would be at the top of the agenda. The first hearing was held last week in the Senate.

Mr. Mitchell also designated as priorities an ambitious child-welfare bill and an education bill he sponsored with Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee.

The child-welfare bill, S 4, spon4sored by Senator Lloyd Bentsen, Democrat of Texas, would expand Medicaid coverage for poor children, pay for “innovative preventive services” to families in crisis, and expand drug and alcohol programs for parents and pregnant women.

The education bill, S 2, would codify the national education goals set last year by the Administration and the National Governors’ Association, launch a package of adult-literacy initiatives, and create an independent panel to monitor progress toward the goals. (See Education Week, Jan. 23, 1991.)

The last proposal, whose primary sponsor is Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, is certain to be strongly opposed by Administration officials, who fought hard last year to keep it out of an omnibus bill that died in the final hours of the 101st Congress. (See Education Week, Nov. 7, 1990.)

The Administration and the n.g.a. created a monitoring panel consisting of governors and Administration officials, with Congressional representatives as nonvoting members. S 2 would establish a panel with a majority of educators.

“It’s no accident that it’s attached to the literacy bill,” said one Senate aide, noting that the literacy initiatives were overwhelmingly approved by both the House and Senate before being incorporated into the ill-fated omnibus bill.

The idea of an independent panel has support among House members as well, including Mr. Ford, who would like to see more Congressional representation, and Representative Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Education and Labor Committee.

“To get anything done, you have to bring in the people who actually make the changes,” Mr. Goodling said, “and that’s not the President and the governors.”

Lawmakers may also clash with the Administration over education proposals originating in the White House. Administration officials say they expect to introduce a revised version of the “educational excellence act,” a package of proposals that included scholarship programs, awards for outstanding schools and teachers, and aid for magnet schools not related to a desegregation plan.

Most of the proposals ultimately were incorporated into last year’s omnibus bill, which also included literacy and teacher-training programs.

But Democrats, particularly those in the House, were never enthusiastic about the President’s bill, which they said would do little to solve major educational problems, particularly those facing the disadvantaged.

Augustus F. Hawkins of California, the former chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, agreed to move a reworked version of the bill, largely as a favor to Mr. Goodling. But the panel’s other Democrats mutinied, delaying consideration and ultimately forcing the addition of many new programs and promises for increased funding for such programs as Chapter 1.

“Now we have an election coming up in two years, and I doubt a 2-to-1 [Democratic] majority is going to be willing to give the President any credit in education,” Mr. Goodling said. “That may have been our last opportunity.”

Mr. Ford said he “will consider anything the President sends over,” but indicated that he would not be enthusiastic about a repackaged version of last year’s bill.

“The original bill was written by someone trying to make fun of President Bush as the ‘education president,”’ Mr. Ford said. “No serious student of the limited role the federal government can play in education thought that bill could do anything.”

The Administration is also working on proposals to support local programs of school choice, and is expected to include funding for such purposes in the 1992 fiscal-year budget to be released Feb. 4. What shape that program would take and whether it would include private schools is a matter of considerable speculation.

Some Administration officials say such a plan is likely to be included as part of a revised “excellence act.” House Democrats are not likely to be receptive.

“If students opt to go to a more attractive school, I’d like to know what we’re going to do for the kids who stay behind,” said Representative Dale E. Kildee, the Michigan Democrat who is the new chairman of the House subcommittee on elementary and secondary education.

“When you have the federal government decide where children in Michigan can attend school or decide they can choose for themselves, regardless of what the school board wants, that would be a clear intrusion on local control,” Mr. Ford said. “I think it’s none of the federal government’s business.”

Lawmakers and aides were more hopeful about cooperative efforts on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which observers predict will undergo a substantial overhaul. (See Education Week, Jan. 16, 1991.)

While reserving judgment on the idea, lawmakers and aides said they were cheered by reports that the Administration might propose that colleges make loans directly to students, eliminating the middlemen. Such a proposal would indicate that the Administration is interested in wholesale change, they noted.

Mr. Ford said he and E. Thomas Coleman of Missouri, the ranking Republican on the postsecondary-education subcommittee, will send a letter to higher-education groups asking for their input.

“I hope to put together a consensus bill,” Mr. Ford said.

But Administration officials and Democratic lawmakers are likely to differ over how much to expand access to student aid. Lawmakers would like to make more students eligible for aid and generally provide more grants and fewer loans; the Administration would like to confine expanded aid to low-income students.

Budget realities could stop such an expansion dead, however.

Under the three-year budget pact adopted last year, defense and domestic expenditures are capped separately, and “emergencies,” such as the war in the Persian Gulf, do not count against either cap.

But appropriators will have only about $10 billion above the current year’s spending levels to spread among all domestic programs.

“It’s going to be a struggle. It’s going to be very competitive,” said Mr. Kildee, who is also a member of the House Budget Committee. “My goal is to match the [$2.6-billion] increase we got last year.”

“They do have the resources to do that,” said Susan Frost, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding. “The problem is whether in this atmosphere the Administration or Congress will focus on the need for resources for anything on the domestic side of the ledger.”

Other items on the Congressional agenda include:

Teacher training. Mr. Kennedy and Senator Claiborne Pell, the Rhode Island Democrat who is chairman of the Senate education subcommittee, plan to reintroduce a package of initiatives designed to aid teacher training and recruitment. Many observers say the proposals are likely to be incorporated into a rewrite of the h.e.a.

A teacher bill that became part of last year’s omnibus bill included scholarships, professional-development academies, and a revived “teacher corps.” It also included a controversial provision to allow federal funding of the National Board for Professional Teaching Stan4dards, which is strongly opposed by the Administration and conservative lawmakers.

Aides say Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Pell are committed to pushing that provision, despite its divisiveness, and Mr. Ford is also a strong supporter.

Educational research. The Education Department’s research programs must be reauthorized by 1992, and hearings are expected to start this year.

In speeches and talks with education advocates, Christopher T. Cross, assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, has primarily discussed the need for more flexible funding mechanisms, stepped-up data collection, and a greater emphasis on dissemination.

But the American Educational Research Association plans to propose focusing the department’s research efforts on a small number of “academies,” rather than on spreading its resources among many small laboratories and centers, as is done now, said Jerry Sroufe, the aera’s director of government and professional liaison.

Representative Major Owens, the New York Democrat who is chairman of the Select Education Subcommittee, which oversees research, has expressed interest in concentrating the department’s efforts on the problems of disadvantaged students.

Testing. The Administration is expected to ask the Congress to allow the National Assessment of Educational Progress to conduct additional assessments in which data can be reported by state.

In addition, the President’s Advisory Committee on Education has urged him to support the concept of a national examination system that could measure the performance of all students.

The Job Training Partnership Act. While many lawmakers were frustrated after a two-year effort to revamp federal job-training fizzled in the final days of the 101st Congress, aides and lawmakers said amendments to the jtpa will be revived early this year.

The Congress and the Administration had been moving toward job-training reforms that would have emphasized long-term training, including a significant basic-skills component. Such an effort--founded during a period of steady economic growth--would have curtailed the jtpa’s emphasis on short-term training and quick job placements. (See Education Week, Sept. 12, 1990.)

But rising unemployment and lingering disputes over how to rewrite the job-training program’s funding formula leave the themes of the 102nd Congress’s jtpa amendments “up in the air,” an aide said.

Oversight. Mr. Kildee said he plans to hold oversight hearings in preparation for the wholesale reauthorization of elementary- and secondary-education programs that is due in 1993. The hearings are to focus particularly on the Chapter 1 compensatory-education program and the school-lunch program.

Disabled infants and toddlers. A new program serving that target group must be reauthorized this session, and state education officials are asking for more time to put programs in place. (See Education4Week, Dec. 5, 1990.)

Youth initiatives. At a recent hearing, Mr. Kennedy issued a statement that discusses “youth empowerment strategies,” such as ensuring coordination between social-service programs for children and youths and creating programs to support mentoring and “life planning” for at-risk youths.

An aide said that proposals related to such ideas are in the early development stages, but that the “life planning” concept may be used as a way to recast the family-life program for adolescents to make it less controversial.

The program, commonly known as the “chastity act,” aims to prevent pregnancies and has been operating without formal authorization for five years as a result of disputes over abortion and parental consent. (See Education Week, Oct. 3, 1990.)

Dropout prevention; educational telecommunications. A dropout-prevention demonstration program and the “star schools” telecommunications program both expire this year.

Extended school year. Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Bingaman have reintroduced a bill that would establish a commission to study the idea of lengthening the school year.

Aid for urban schools. Mr. Kennedy has also reintroduced legislation drafted by the Council of the Great City Schools that is designed to help urban districts meet the national education goals.

A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 1991 edition of Education Week as New Congress Gets Ready To Grapple With Debates Over Student Aid, Goals