Republicans, Democrats Stake Out Education Agendas in Senate Bills

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Expanding school choice to private and religious schools tops Senate Republicans' agenda for education this year, along with measures to compensate victims of violence in schools, a prepaid-tuition plan, and a big boost for special education funding.

The GOP senators have lumped their proposals into a package dubbed "The Safe and Affordable Schools Act." That bill, S 1, is among Republican priorities that also include a balanced-budget amendment and other measures related to taxes, crime, and the workplace. No companion bill has been introduced in the House.

On the other side of the aisle, Senate Democrats have introduced a bill that mirrors President Clinton's initiatives: school construction, higher education loan and scholarship programs, literacy and early reading efforts, and school technology.

The Democrats outlined their priorities shortly after Mr. Clinton was re-elected and introduced the "Education for the 21st Century Act," S 12, as one of their first bills in the first session of the new 105th Congress. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said the initiatives will be paid for in Mr. Clinton's balanced-budget plan, to be unveiled this week.

Because they include tax-related proposals, both parties' education bills have been referred to the Senate Finance Committee, which has not scheduled hearings on them.

In addition to the bills containing party priorities, lawmakers in the Senate and the House are scheduled this year to tackle reauthorizations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act, and the Higher Education Act. ("Only Minor Rewriting Seen for Higher Ed. Act" in This Week's News.)

Another Stab at Vouchers

The Senate Republicans' bill would broaden the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to allow experiments with school choice in public, private, and parochial schools. The bill would also encourage new all-boys and all-girls schools, and give teachers and schools incentives for boosts in academic achievement.

The Republicans have also taken steps in their bill to protect students who attend schools with high rates of violence, as well as the victims of crimes in schools.

Under S 1, GOP lawmakers want to give 20 to 30 districts five years to experiment with a voucher program for low-income students. Students who attend schools with high rates of crime and discipline problems could receive vouchers to attend other public, charter, private, or religious schools.

"We want every child to have a chance for a good education in a school free from violence and drugs," Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said in a recent radio address. Mr. Lott is one of several sponsors of S 1--a list that notably does not include Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., the chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, which oversees education issues.

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley has already blasted the school choice provisions. He advocates charter schools instead.

"Vouchers are a bad idea, but it is not enough just to oppose them. We must offer better alternatives," he said. "There is plenty of room for choice in education, but vouchers are the wrong choice, and they are harmful to the concept of the common school."

Federal funds would be better spent in public schools, said Adele Robinson, a senior program associate with the National Education Association, which opposes vouchers.

Similar voucher initiatives have been defeated, and this year's sponsors are unlikely to find enough votes to pass such a measure, Ms. Robinson added.

Beyond vouchers, the GOP crime initiatives would give schools grants to compensate students who are victims of school violence, and provide aid for schools to create programs to protect crime victims and witnesses.

One part of the bill would also give parents tax breaks for prepaid college-tuition and educational-investment accounts, and deductions for student loans.

The "Bob Dole Educational Investment Accounts" would allow parents to put up to $1,000 per child, per year in a tax-free account, to be invested any way the parent chooses.

The bill also proposed adding $10 billion to the federal special education program over seven years.

Scholarships Galore

Meanwhile, the Democrats' agenda includes Mr. Clinton's pet program, Hope Scholarships, which would provide a $1,500 refundable tax credit to all students for their first year of college and an additional $1,500 for second-year students who maintained a B average and stayed off drugs.

Under S 12, a family could choose a $10,000 federal tax deduction for two years of college tuition in place of the scholarship. Families with incomes less than $100,000 would be allowed to take the deduction for four years.

The plans pave the way for every 18-year-old to afford a college education, Mr. Clinton said at press conference last week. ("Clinton Previews Education Priorities in '98 Budget," in This Week's News.)

Democrats also want to fund a $5 billion bond program for school construction and repairs, plus another $2 billion to pay for information technology, such as connecting schools to the Internet.

Rounding out the initiatives is $2.75 billion for the president's "America Reads" program, which would support tutoring and Head Start programs to ensure that every child can read at grade level by the 3rd grade.

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