Democrats Divided on Responses to America 2000

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WASHINGTON--Nearly six months after President Bush unveiled his America 2000 education strategy, Congressional Democrats have yet to agree on how to respond.

"We can do a consensus bill, and everybody can say he got 75 percent of what he wants, and we'll have a party,"a Democratic Senate aide said. "Or we can ask ourselves, 'What do we need to do to improve American schools? What is the Democrats' vision?'"

The Democrats must decide not only how much of the Administration's program they are willing to accept, but how ambitious their own proposals should be and what political strategies they should adopt in pursuing those proposals.

Democrats are even discussing combining education-reform proposals with a pending reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, and possibly with renewal of the Education Department's research branch, into a huge bill that, in theory, would be harder to veto.

Some of the ideas currently under discussion--such as a $5-billion-a-year incentive-grant program and entitlement status for Head Start-would require scrapping the budget accord that currently restricts domestic spending.

A move to do that, or to advance other controversial proposals, would result in a partisan battle that might scuttle any chances of enacting education-reform legislation in the 102nd Congress. (See Education Week, Sept. 25, 1991.)

"The worst thing that could happen is that we'll come up with something the President would have to veto," said Representative Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee. "That would be a political strategy."

Negotiations Falter

In the spring, the Senate appeared poised to move first. Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the Labor and Human Resources Committee, said he would try to negotiate a compromise with the Administration and move more controversial proposals later.

According to Senate aides and Administration officials, committee leaders agreed to accept much of the Administration's package, including its "New American Schools" proposal, its merit-schools plan, and programs for teacher training and alternative certification. The teacher programs were to be folded into the Higher Education Act; the others were to be added to S 2.

That bill, introduced by Mr. Kennedy and Senator George J. Mitchell of Maine, the Senate majority leader, would codify the national education goals adopted by the Administration and the National Governors' Association and also includes several Democratic initiatives.

Mr. Kennedy later introduced a public-school choice program and a plan to provide coordinated health and social services to children in schools. (See Education Week, May 29, 1991.)

Sources said the primary sticking points in negotiations were the details of the new-schools plan and the Administration's insistence on allowing funding for choice plans that include private schools.

The Administration also remains opposed to a proposal to add educators to the National Education Goals Panel, which now includes only governors and Administration officials, and fears that the comprehensive-services plan could allow funding of school-based clinics dispensing birth control and abortion advice.

The negotiations broke off in July, a development most sources attributed to pressure from Mr. Mitchell to produce a bill more reflective of Democratic priorities.

Since then, a handful of Labor Committee aides has worked on the legislation behind the scenes. Working drafts obtained by Education Week include the programs contained in the original S 2, the Kennedy choice and comprehensive-services plans, a new program of grants for the "comprehensive, schoolwide" redesign of "high need" schools--and none of the Administration's proposals.

Aides said Senate leaders are now debating whether to work with the Administration or to produce their own bill without Republican input. They are also discussing how big a bill they want to produce, and specifically whether to include a Kennedy measure that would make Head Start an entitlement.

House Action

Both the internal debate among the Democrats and the gulf separating the parties surfaced more publicly last week in the House, when the Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education convened to mark up HR 3320. The bill--introduced recently by Mr. Goodling and the panel's chairman, Representative Dale E. Kildee, Democrat of Michigan--was offered as an alternative to the Administration's America 2000 bill.

HR 3320 would provide federal funding to draft and implement comprehensive reform plans at the state and local levels; the plans would have to include educational goals and an assessment mechanism to measure progress toward them.

States would have to pass 75 percent of the money--as much as $700 million the first year--to school districts to help them implement their plans. Activities that could be funded with those grants include several proposals from the Administration's bill: the creation of "New American Schools," rewards to "merit schools," and choice plans.

In a letter to Mr. Goodling, Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander said the Administration would accept the bill's framework, but asked that governors be responsible for state planning, not state education departments, and complained that the allowable activities "are so broadly described as to constitute general aid."

Mr. Alexander specifically asked that only his proposals be included as allowable uses of funds, and that the bill ensure that some of the funds be used to "offer an adequate test of implementation of private- and public-school choice."

Mr. Goodling told reporters, however, that the Democrats would not go that far.

A veto of HR 3320 "would be perhaps a slap in the face of Bill Goodling, who worked awfully hard to get a 2-to-l majority to make [the President's] program an allowable activity," the Pennsylvania Republican said.

Volatile Issues

Both Mr. Goodling and Mr. Kildee acknowledged that it would be difficult to get even the current bill to the House floor, primarily due to the volatile issue of choice. While the subcommittee approved the bill on a voice vote and deferred votes on contentious subjects, the debate supported their assessment.

Representative William J. Jefferson, Democrat of Louisiana, said he would offer an amendment at the full-committee level striking choice as an allowable activity, arguing that federal encouragement of choice plans could lead to "resegregation" and "the destruction of the public schools."

Several Democrats agreed with him; other members, including some Republicans, said they would favor restricting funding to public-school choice. And Mr. Goodling said some Republicans would demand that private-school choice plans be explicitly included, although they did not speak last week.

The other amendment discussed last week is no less contentious.

Representative Patsy T. Mink, Democrat of Hawaii, has proposed a massive increase in authorized spending for Head Start and a $2- billion-a-year program of "incentive grants" to school districts that can show increased achievement over all and specifically by Chapter 1 students, reduced dropout rates, and progress in maintaining a safe environment. The funds could be used for a variety of school-improvement programs.

Aides said Ms. Mink did not have enough votes for the amendment, but many Democrats praised her efforts, and Mr. Kildee promised to consider the proposal as part of a comprehensive education-reform bill he plans to introduce in January, which he said could also include such Democratic proposals as a massive program of aid to urban and rural schools.

Republicans warned that such an expensive approach would draw a veto.

The full Education and Labor Committee is expected to take up HR 3320 after it completes action on the H.E.A., which is to begin this week.

Vol. 11, Issue 05, Pages 23, 30

Published in Print: October 2, 1991, as Democrats Divided on Responses to America 2000
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