Summit Agenda Likely To Spark Fight in Congress

By Julie A. Miller — October 11, 1989 8 min read
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Some of the initiatives backed by President Bush and the nation’s governors at their education summit late last month are likely to run into opposition on Capitol Hill, lawmakers and aides said in interviews last week.

In a statement issued Sept. 28 at the close of the historic meeting in Charlottesville, Va., the participants agreed to set national performance goals for education by early 1990 and to launch a state-by-state effort to “restructure” the nation’s schools.

The statement, drafted by the Administration and negotiated by top White House officials and three key governors, also called for more flexibility in federal and state education regulations and for a national “report card” to measure the performance of individual states and schools.

It is the latter two initiatives that require Congressional cooperation--a situation that could weaken their chances for approval, observers said last week.

Giving schools more leeway in their use of federal funds in exchange for a commitment to meet performance standards was one of the summit’s main themes.

Such an initiative, which would require legislation, could allow schools to merge funds from different programs, to spend federal money on broad school-improvement measures rather than on “pull-out” programs for specific students, or to use equipment purchased with federal funds for a variety of purposes.

The flexibility idea, raised earlier this year in a report by the National Center on Education and the Economy, was endorsed by the President in April, but it has been controversial in the Congress. (See Education Week, April 19, 1989.)

In May, Representative Peter P. Smith, Republican of Vermont, persuaded leaders of the House Education and Labor Committee to hold a hearing on the notion.

Education advocates generally supported the idea of loosening restrictions on the use of federal aid. But a civil-rights advocate and the committee’s chairman, Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, expressed reservations. (See Education Week, May 24, 1989.)

The California Democrat was unavailable for comment last week, but his top education aide said Mr. Hawkins remains concerned about the impact of a “flexibility” initiative on the disadvantaged students many federal education programs are designed to aid.

“Those federal programs didn’t come out of the sky; they came about because there were particular problems,” said John F. Jennings, counsel for the Education and Labor Committee. “We’re afraid that if you leave it up to local school districts, we’ll end up where we were 20 years ago with poor children and handicapped children being ignored.”

Rough Sledding Predicted

Mr. Jennings also said supporters of the flexibility concept must specify which regulations they want to relax and why, a comment that was echoed by other Congressional aides.

Senate aides of both parties said lawmakers had not yet begun to consider the flexibility proposal, but they predicted that a measure designed to reduce the government’s ability to account for its expenditures would face rough sledding.

“There’s a concern that flexibility isn’t always accompanied by accountability,” said David Evans, staff director of the Senate’s education subcommittee. “I think, over all in Congress, there’s more support for Chapter 1 [compensatory-education aid] than Chapter 2 [block grants], and one reason is that, with Chapter 1, you know where the money’s going and how it’s spent.”

But Mr. Smith and Representative William F. Goodling, the ranking Republican on the education and labor panel, were more optimistic about the chances of enacting flexibility legislation.

“I think the summit substantially improved the climate for changing national federal policy in regard to schools,” Mr. Smith said last week. “The belief among governors is that you can’t get better performance unless you give schools and the people who work in schools more control over what they do.”

Representative Smith said a second hearing on loosening federal restrictions will be scheduled next month to give educators an opportunity to discuss their reasons for wanting more flexibility.

“The summit may encourage some members who are thinking the other way to take another look,” Mr. Goodling said, adding that he does not think Mr. Hawkins’s opposition is intractable.

“It’s an idea he has to examine very carefully to ensure that it’s not an attempt to undo what he’s been working hard for a long time to do,” Mr. Goodling said. “I don’t think his feet are set in cement.”

Marc S. Tucker, executive director of the National Center on Education and the Economy, said proponents must be careful not to back deregulation, which smacks of “Rea8gan-era block grants,” but “a new kind of regulation.”

“People on the Hill are ready for that kind of discussion, though not without controversy,” he said. “They are committed to making things work, especially for poor kids, and are as frustrated as anyone else.”

‘Report Card’ Draws Skepticism

Lawmakers and their aides were virtually unanimous last week in predicting that any move to establish a national report card that would allow comparisons among states and schools would face stiff opposition.

They noted that a law authorizing a trial state-level analysis by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the likely vehicle for such a “report card,” was enacted last year after a long battle in which representatives from poor states and districts bitterly opposed the idea.

“A ranking means somebody has to come out on the bottom, and nobody wants to be on the bottom,” Mr. Evans noted.

Mr. Goodling said he might support assessments that rated states’ and schools’ performance from year to year, but only if no comparisons could be made among them.

“When you start comparing district to district, it’s totally unfair--apples and oranges,” Mr. Goodling said.

When he was an educator before his election to the Congress, Mr. Goodling said, Pennsylvania tried district-level rankings and abolished them under a hail of criticism.

“What a great discovery it was that [the wealthiest districts] were number one,” he said sarcastically.

‘A Faddish Idea?’

However, some Congressional observers said a national climate in favor of stricter performance standards could prompt lawmakers to go along with the assessment proposal.

“Report cards scanned by Big Brother don’t seem to achieve much,” Representative Pat Williams said, calling it “a faddish idea.”

“But in the mood this Congress is in, they could fall for such a fad,” said the Montana Democrat, a former teacher who is chairman of the postsecondary-education subcommittee.

Another part of the summit agreement that may spark spirited debate on Capitol Hill is its call for more federal support for early-childhood education programs, particularly Head Start, and for measures to increase “access” to education.

The statement did not specifically promise increased federal funding this year, but Democrats wasted no time in using it against Mr. Bush. They contended that, in light of his summit action, he would be a hypocrite to veto a child-care measure passed by the House last week. (See related story, page 23.)

Governors Take Action

Governors, meanwhile, began discussing state-level proposals last week--and endeavored to reap political benefit from their meeting with the President.

Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin and Gov. Cecil D. Andrus of Idaho told reporters, for example, that they would name committees to study their states’ education needs.

In South Dakota, Gov. George S. Mickelson said he would organize a series of meetings across his state to seek input from parents and educators. Gov. Ray Mabus of Mississippi said he started receiving that input at “town meetings” he began before the summit.

And Gov. Neil Goldschmidt of Oregon said he would travel throughout his state to solicit ideas and appoint committees to do the same.

Several governors returned from the summit to reveal specific reforms they planned to propose. Mr. Thompson said he favors a longer school year, Mr. Goldschmidt promised a proposal for changes in school finance, and Gov. Terry E. Branstad of Iowa said he would call for an alternative route to teacher certification.

Governors also seized the opportunity both in Charlottesville and back home to point with pride to reforms already under way in their states, highlighting areas the summit agreement singled out for goal-setting.

Gov. Wallace Wilkinson of Kentucky, for example, said his call for the establishment of “benchmark” schools freed from the burden of state regulation “is now the national agenda,” a remark echoed by several of his colleagues in praise of their states.

Some governors boasted of how impressed their colleagues were with some of their state initiatives.

“It was really a hot item down there,” Gov. Edward D. DiPrete of Rhode Island said of his state’s “children’s crusade for higher education,” for instance.

The program, set to begin in 1991, is designed to guarantee a college or trade-school education to every third-grader who adheres to its achievement guidelines.

Public Meetings Considered

Representatives of the Bush Administration and the National Governors’ Association said last week that negotiations have not yet begun in earnest on how to establish the national goals promised at the summit.

But, they added, public meetings or hearings of some type are likely to be a part of the plan.

The statement released at the summit’s close calls for a joint effort by “the President’s designees” and the nga task force on education to establish the goals in a process that includes wide consultation.

Michael Cohen, an education-policy analyst for the nga, said he envisions a series of national, regional, and state meetings as part of the goal-setting process.

“No one ever thought that the goals would begin and end at the national level,” he said. “We will have to have a comparable process at the state and local level.”

Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, said last week that they would push for a national meeting that would include educators and other “stakeholders.”

The Congress appropriated funds for such a meeting in 1984, but the Reagan Administration declined to hold it.

A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 1989 edition of Education Week as Summit Agenda Likely To Spark Fight in Congress


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