Skeptics Greet Clinton Plan's First Appearance in Congress

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House Republicans got their first jabs at President Clinton's 10-point education agenda last week, raising questions on the feasibility of several of his pet projects and the federal government's role in reforms.

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley brought the president's plans to a House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing and faced questions on such issues as higher education tax credits, Mr. Clinton's proposed reading initiative, and national standards.

The session was the first hearing the House committee has held on the president's agenda, but leading Republicans have not been shy about criticizing portions of the plan since Mr. Clinton released his budget last month. ("Clinton Asks $10 Billion Boost for Education," Feb. 12, 1997.)

While Republicans say they, too, want to make education a top priority, the two parties have so far found little concurrence on specific plans.

Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the committee's chairman, said after the hearing that he doubted that several of the administration's ideas would pass, including the proposed Hope scholarships and a plan to help pay interest on school construction bonds.

The Hope scholarships would allow students to take an annual $1,500 income-tax credit for two years' college tuition, or would let families take an annual $10,000 tax deduction for as many years as they had students in college. Mr. Clinton has said the plan is intended to make at least two years of college available for all students.

Lawmakers from both parties last week attacked the plan for its minimum-grade requirements.

Students would have to maintain a B-minus average, calculated as a 2.75 on a 4.0 scale, to qualify for a tax break in the second year, Mr. Riley told the panel. "The president wanted to put a meaningful incentive in there," he explained, adding that he would be open to other suggestions.

But the grade requirement would lead to a huge change in the value of college grades, said Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., who chairs the subcommittee that handles higher education. "Will the Internal Revenue Service be taking a student's report card to see if they qualify for a second year?" he asked.

Democrats Skeptical Too

Some Democrats joined in criticizing Mr. Clinton's higher education package, which includes increases of up to $300 for Pell Grant recipients, as paying too little attention to poor students.

"I wish we would look at how to put more emphasis on work-study and Pell Grants," said Rep. Dale Kildee of Michigan, the committee's ranking Democrat.

But it costs the federal government $350 million each time the maximum Pell Grant is raised $100, Mr. Riley said, adding that tax relief is needed for middle-class students who are also unable to afford college. The proposed tax credits and deductions would be available to families with incomes below $80,000 a year; reduced tax breaks would be offered to those making up to $100,000.

Another of Mr. Clinton's favorite campaign proposals, the America Reads program, drew criticism from panel members for using money that they said might be better spent on existing programs or on helping reduce class sizes.

The program would put 1 million volunteer tutors and 30,000 reading specialists into schools. Critics say it would duplicate other federal literacy programs and distract from the need to improve regular school reading programs. ("Effectiveness of Clinton Reading Plan Questioned," Feb. 26, 1997.)

And a $5 billion initiative to pay up to half of the interest on local school construction bonds could end up costing districts more, owing to the wage requirements on federally financed construction projects, some on the House panel said.

Any construction project built using federal funds is subject to the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires builders to pay so-called prevailing wages. Some Republicans said that would add about 15 percent to a project's costs. Mr. Riley said he saw no way to circumvent the law.

After the hearing, Mr. Goodling suggested that Republicans might use the school construction initiative as a bargaining tool to reform the Davis-Bacon law.

Consequences Undecided

Some lawmakers also questioned whether the president's proposal to set voluntary national standards in reading and mathematics, along with related new tests in those subjects, would be able to follow through with consequences for schools that failed to make the grade.

"You can have standards and goals, but if you don't have consequences, you won't get there," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.

Mr. Riley suggested that a school that repeatedly failed to meet standards could be shut down or taken over under state laws. But as far as the proposed national standards and tests, he said, it would be up to states and school districts to figure out how to solve their problems.

The department "stands willing to offer advice," he said.

Mr. Goodling warned the Education Department not to get too eager in laying its plans.

"I wouldn't move ahead thinking you have the authority without having the total involvement of Congress," he advised during his opening remarks.

The department plans to release legislation spelling out the Hope Scholarship, America Reads, and school construction initiatives late this month, Mr. Riley said.

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