Compromise on 'Opportunity' Standards Struck

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A House-Senate conference committee last week agreed to compromise language on "opportunity to learn'' standards that clears the way for final passage of the Clinton Administration's education-reform bill, which is to be considered on the House and Senate floors this week.

"We got a compromise that left no one happy, so it must be good,'' said Rep. William D. Ford, D-Mich.

If Congress passes the proposed "goals 2000: educate America act'' by the end of the week and President Clinton signs it by April 1, the Education Department can release $105 million Congress had appropriated to launch a new grant program supporting state and local reform efforts.

Proponents are all but certain that the measure can garner majorities in both chambers. But it remains unclear whether the conference report has enough support to quash a potential Republican filibuster in the Senate.

Democrats say they need five Republicans to reach the 60 votes needed to close debate. Seventeen Senate Republicans voted for the Senate's version of the bill last month, but most are expected to oppose the final version.

Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas, the ranking Republican on the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, has enlisted G.O.P. support for education measures in the past, but she said in an interview that she would not support the bill.

"I won't filibuster it, but I won't support it,'' Ms. Kassebaum said.

So attention has turned to other moderates, such as Sen. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn., Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, R.-Ore., and Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., who helped broker the final compromise on opportunity standards.

Mr. Jeffords said he would support the bill. The others have not stated a position.

"We want to support this bill,'' said an aide to Mr. Hatfield. "But I don't know where he's going to come down on O.T.L.''

Focus of Controversy

Observers expect the filibuster to be initiated by Sen. Jesse A. Helms, R-N.C., who added an amendment to the Senate bill barring federal aid to schools that do not allow voluntary, "constitutionally protected'' prayer. Conferees altered the wording to forbid schools to use federal money to prevent voluntary prayer or meditation.

The opportunity-standards agreement would require states to set content and performance standards in order to participate in the new school-reform grant program. But it would allow states to establish either opportunity standards or strategies--a distinction that many senators said was critical to allow states that are far along in their reform efforts to participate.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, vociferously complained that his state could be excluded under the more prescriptive House language.

It would have required states to set opportunity standards that address how states align curricula, instructional materials, and assessments with content and performance standards, and how states would improve schools to help students meet the standards.

The Senate bill, in contrast, would have made the setting of content, performance, and opportunity standards optional.

The conference report would require opportunity standards or strategies to address "such factors that the state deems appropriate to insure that all students receive a fair opportunity to achieve the knowledge and skills as described in content and performance standards adopted by the state.''

But state plans still would have to address how states will align assessments, curricula, and teacher training with state standards.

The agreement also includes language stating that participation in Goals 2000 is voluntary, and that the bill is not to be construed to mandate school-finance equalization or school-building standards.

"I think the [House] Democrats realized this was Clinton's flagship proposal, and I don't think any of the Democrats wanted to defeat it,'' said John F. Jennings, the chief education counsel to the House Education and Labor Committee, noting that the Administration has built its education agenda around standards-setting efforts.

Mr. Jennings said Democrats are also concerned that the party might lose Senate seats in the fall elections, making it even harder to invoke cloture if they wait to act.

Other Provisions

In addition to the grant program, which the Administration has proposed funding at $700 million in fiscal 1995, Goals 2000 would codify the six national education goals and add two others, formally authorize the National Education Goals Panel, and create two new standards-setting boards.

The National Education Standards and Improvement Council would set model national content, performance, and opportunity standards and certify standards voluntarily submitted by states. A separate board would set standards for occupational training.

Other key agreements reached by the conference panel include:

  • Giving the goals panel authority to overrule NESIC decisions within 90 days with a vote of two-thirds of the panel's members.
  • Including a program that would allow waivers of some federal rules to aid reform efforts in six states.
  • A compromise on the makeup of the occupational-skills-standards board, which would include eight members from business and eight from labor. The Secretaries of Labor, Commerce, and Education and the NESIC chairman would be nonvoting members; the first chairman would come from the business community. Other members are to include human-resource professionals, an educator, a civil-rights expert, and representatives of state or local government and a community-based organization.

The conference report also includes a safe-schools program, through which $20 million will be distributed to high-violence schools if it is enacted by April 1, and legislation to reauthorize the office of educational research and improvement. (See related story, this page.)

Because aides were clarifying oral agreements, including the most important one on opportunity standards, the final language was not available last week.

Citing that uncertainty, Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the ranking Republican on the Education and Labor panel, did not sign the conference report, which even opponents customarily do.

Vol. 13, Issue 26

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