Democrats, School Groups Seek To Revive Construction Plan

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President Clinton gave "promising signs" last week that he would help Democratic lawmakers in their efforts to provide federal funding for school construction, according to congressional aides. The issue came up in a closed-door Capitol Hill meeting on the federal budget between Mr. Clinton and House Democrats.

Frustrated that Mr. Clinton's construction initiative was left out of the bipartisan balanced-budget deal announced earlier this month, Democratic lawmakers and education groups are fighting to keep the issue alive on Capitol Hill. A letter from 103 House Democrats urged the president to keep construction aid a top priority as the budget process continues.

The administration hasn't turned its back on schools' construction needs, a Department of Education spokesman said last week. While the department wholeheartedly supports the budget agreement, "unquestionably this is a problem that needs to be addressed," the spokesman said.

And a spokesman for Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill., the chief sponsor of the Senate bill that would authorize the construction aid, said that President Clinton "remains committed to trying to see something happen this year, and so are we."

But congressional aides and education lobbyists said it was too soon to predict how the proposal will fare.

The budget deal announced by Mr. Clinton and Republican leaders May 2 called for funding most of the president's other education proposals, including his reading program and tax breaks for college costs. ("Clinton-Hill Accord Would Hike Ed. Funding," May 14, 1997.)

A more detailed, written agreement was hammered out late last week. It did not include construction aid.

Pro and Con

The construction initiative would authorize the federal government to pay up to $5 billion in interest on construction bonds issued by local school districts. The one-time infusion of federal money would spur an estimated $20 billion in facilities spending over four years, supporters say. ("President's School Construction Plan Debated," March 19, 1997.)

Members of the Republican majority generally have opposed the initiative, arguing that school construction should remain a local responsibility. In addition, they say, federal aid could drive up building costs for some districts because of the Davis-Bacon Act, a law requiring that federally funded construction projects pay prevailing, or union, wages to workers.

But the proposal, which was part of Mr. Clinton's 1996 campaign platform, has received praise from a broad spectrum of education groups and state officials. Several Illinois Republicans, including Gov. Jim Edgar, have recently given their support to the legislation, according to Ms. Moseley-Braun's staff. And two Republicans are co-sponsoring the House legislation to authorize the program.

Some Democrats, meanwhile, have not been shy about criticizing the balanced-budget negotiators for dropping the proposal. Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr., D-Tenn., lambasted both Republicans and President Clinton. "All of them are wrong," he said at a recent press conference.

School facilities needs have grown to the point where they can no longer be ignored and federal help is needed, supporters of the construction plan say.

They cite research by the General Accounting Office that put the price tag for renovating the nation's schools at $112 billion. The congressional watchdog agency also estimates that fewer than half of U.S. schools have phone lines for computer modems to allow them to use the Internet, and that more than one-third lack the electrical power needed for computers and other technology.

At a May 8 news conference, Sen. Moseley-Braun said that without upgrading their facilities, many schools will be powerless to take advantage of the school discounts for telecommunications services recently approved by the Federal Communications Commission.("FCC Approves Discount Plan for Schools," May 14, 1997.)

"You can hardly put a computer in a classroom if you can't plug it into a wall, or if it is going to get soaked the next time it rains," she said.

This Year or Next?

If federal funding is not included in the budget for fiscal 1998, which starts Oct. 1, the construction proposal definitely will resurface in next year's budget, Democratic aides say.

School lobbying groups say they will keep pressing the issue.

"We're going to have to address this issue, whether it's this year or next," said Samuel G. Sava, the executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. "We cannot, as responsible educators, ignore the fact that school buildings need to be brought up to higher standards than what we have."

Other education groups have written letters to endorse the federal government's proposed role.

"Federal involvement is consistent with the government's historical role in providing educational equity," Brenda L. Welburn, the executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, wrote in a letter to Ms. Moseley-Braun.

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