Republicans on the Senate education committee pushed through proposed changes to the main federal K-12 law last week that would represent a dramatic—and controversial—departure from the government’s current approach to helping schools.
Senate Democrats and the Clinton administration were quick to criticize the bill, which the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee approved March 9 on a 10-8 vote along party lines. If adopted as now drafted, the bill would likely draw a presidential veto.
The legislation, which would reauthorize the 35-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act, would allow a limited number of states to consolidate funding under a host of federal programs and use the money for schools as they saw fit. In return for the unprecedented flexibility, those states would have to demonstrate they have improved student achievement overall and narrowed the achievement gap between the highest- and lowest-performing students.
That proposal, originally introduced as the Academic Achievement for All Act, or “Straight A’s,” has been a top education priority of congressional Republicans. A similar version was passed by the House along party lines last fall. The House version would allow up to 10 states to participate; the Senate committee’s version would increase the number to 15.
Local school districts could also participate if their states were not part of the program.
In states where private-school-tuition vouchers are permissible, the consolidated funds could be used for that purpose.
“The time has clearly come for us to depart from a system that has not produced the results” that parents want, said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who offered the Straight A’s amendment. “We need to set a new path.” Mr. Gregg is the chairman of the panel’s subcommittee on children and families.
The Republican majority won approval of the Straight A’s amendment by a vote of 9-8, with the chairman, Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont—one of the chamber’s most liberal Republicans—voting present. A spokesman for Sen. Jeffords, Joe Karpinski, explained that although the chairman did not support the proposal as drafted, he agreed that he would not block its passage if all other Republicans backed it.
Mr. Jeffords had proposed a scaled-back version of Straight A’s, but that version did not go far enough to satisfy most of the committee’s Republican members. (“Senators Eyeing Extensive Changes to K-12 Schools Bill,” March 1, 2000.)
For their part, the committee’s Democrats did not like either approach.
“Unfortunately, the Republican majority made a bad bill worse,” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat, said during a press briefing shortly before the final vote on the bill.
This fiscal year, programs under the ESEA provide about $15 billion for precollegiate education.
Title I ‘Portability’
Sen. Kennedy and other Democrats argued that the bill would essentially “block grant” federal funds to governors, and that it would undermine some key Democratic priorities, such as reducing class sizes and supporting school construction. He vowed that Democrats would continue their efforts to change the bill.
“We’re not giving up,” Mr. Kennedy said. “We’re taking this battle to the floor of the United States Senate.”
One critical point of contention was how the Straight A’s plan would hold schools accountable for showing improved results.
Sen. Gregg said that each participating state would set out goals in a performance agreement that would need to be met after five years.
“So, [states] set the goals?” Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., replied. “That’s a pretty good deal.”
Chairman Jeffords voted present a second time during the committee’s deliberations when Mr. Gregg offered an amendment to allow so-called Title I portability. Under that approach—which would be offered as a demonstration program for up to 10 states and 20 individual districts—federal aid under the $8 billion program for disadvantaged students would follow students to the schools of their choice.
Current law requires that Title I money be distributed to districts and schools based on concentrations of high-poverty students.
“The purpose here is to make sure that the dollars are going with the low-income child,” Mr. Gregg said. He said that in many districts with less poverty, low-income students who qualify do not receive Title I services.
A similar proposal was rejected during the House Education and the Workforce Committee’s deliberations on a Title I bill.
All of the Senate panel’s eight Democrats opposed the portability measure. Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico said it would create “an administrative nightmare” for schools.
In a letter delivered to senators the day before the March 7 vote on that amendment, 18 national education groups expressed their misgivings as well.
“This proposal offers low-income students and their parents an empty promise of increased educational support,” they wrote.
They argued that by allocating Title I dollars on a per-child basis, a program that is already underfunded would face an immediate and drastic cut in the level and quality of services provided to students.
Committee Democrats offered a series of amendments to the bill, most of which were rejected on party-line votes. The measures were intended to improve teacher quality, boost accountability, create a separate authorization for the federal class-size-reduction program, and help finance school construction, domestic-violence programs, and school libraries.
In one example, Sen. Kennedy, offered an amendment on teacher-quality initiatives that was designed as an alternative to the Republicans’ more flexible approach to the issue.
But Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., criticized the amendment as “overly prescriptive.” It was defeated, 10-8.
Again and again, the debate last week returned to the philosophical divide between Republicans and Democrats over how flexible federal education assistance for schools should be.
“Flexibility is great,” said Sen. Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, “but if the system is not working up to national demands,” then Congress has a right to insist on certain measures, he said.
Referring to several Democratic amendments offered, Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas said he was not opposed to encouraging parental involvement in schools or providing wider access to Advanced Placement courses.
“What I am against is creating new federal programs,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2000 edition of Education Week as Senate Panel Approves ESEA Reauthorization