Parties Take Up New Education Policy Debate

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For two years, Republicans and Democrats debated whether there should be a federal Department of Education. The Democrats won.

Now the two sides are embroiled in a fight over exactly what the department can and should be doing.

Their debate is focused on three issues: national testing, which is being championed by the Clinton administration, and block grants and private school choice, both backed primarily by Republicans. Each side is using public relations and legislative threats to insist that its philosophy prevail. And, so far, neither side is giving in.

Sen. Slade Gorton

"One of the most important issues for Republicans today is education reform," Jim Nicholson, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, said at a Sept. 25 meeting with reporters. The breakfast was one of a series of Washington events last month designed to highlight the achievements of GOP governors and the initiatives of the party's House and Senate leaders.

"It's become clear that there are some who are waging an effort to undermine our commitment to public education and our public schools," President Clinton said Sept. 30 in one of several public statements he's made recently to promote his proposals and rebuke his opponents.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman

Because testing, block grants, and choice play integral roles in two annual spending bills, the debates are likely to come to a head this month. Congress last week extended the deadline for passing appropriations bills until Oct. 23.

Already, the rhetoric is escalating. Mr. Clinton is promising to veto any spending bill that doesn't allow for his administration's proposed voluntary new national tests, which most Republicans strongly oppose, or that creates school vouchers or bundles most federal education spending into block grants.

And Democrats in the Senate say they are willing to use the filibuster--a procedure that allows debate to continue so long as 41 senators oppose a bill--on any measure that conflicts with the president's agenda. Republicans are making the same threats if they don't get their way.

What the People Want

The start of this year's debate dates back to 1995. The newly installed GOP Congress called for the elimination of the Education Department and drastic cuts in its programs. To the vocal consternation of Democrats, several Republican leaders said publicly that their goal was to gradually eliminate the federal role in the education.

That message continued into last year's presidential election when GOP nominee Bob Dole's platform called for the department's elimination and promoted a school choice agenda. ("Dole, Clinton at Sharp Odds on Education," Sept. 4, 1996.)

But after Mr. Dole's defeat and the loss of eight Republican seats in the House, the party decided to pursue a more activist education agenda.

The GOP "is keying into what the American public is asking for," said Ed Goeas, the president of the Tarrance Group, an Alexandria, Va., polling firm that advises Republicans. "They're focusing on some things that the federal government can do."

The cornerstones of the agenda are school choice and block grants, two mainstays of Republican policy.

Last month, the Senate approved a plan to put almost all federal K-12 programs into a $11 billion block grant that would send money directly to school boards with few federal requirements.

"Bypassing federal and state bureaucracies, which siphon millions of dollars and attach regulatory strings, means more authority and more money for local educators," Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., the plan's sponsor, said in a national radio address Sept. 20.

That argument is close to what focus-group participants representing the general public are saying they want, Mr. Goeas said.

But it's not what President Clinton wants. With the backing of his fellow Democratic in Congress, he has threatened to veto any spending bill that includes the block grant provision. That veto threat alone complicates the appropriations process.

In a separate series of legislative initiatives and public relations events, Republicans also are promoting school choice aggressively. Throughout September, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., spoke on school choice at congressional hearings and press conferences.

Choice Agenda

The legislative focus for the issue is the annual spending bill for the District of Columbia. The House Appropriations Committee last week approved a $7 million initiative that would grant $3,200 scholarships to K-12 students in Washington that could be used to help pay tuition at private schools, including religious schools, or public schools in neighboring suburban districts. The Senate removed a similar program from its companion bill after Democrats recruited 42 votes to continue debate until the provision was taken out.

After President Clinton criticized the voucher plan on Sept. 30, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, fired back with a staple of Republicans' recent rhetoric: Give parents control.

"No political grandstanding can justify denying low-income children the same opportunity to attend a safe school with rigorous academics and real discipline," he said in a statement.

Democratic Response

Mr. Clinton and Democrats responded that their agenda would help public schools improve by giving them tools to address specific problems. "Instead of abandoning our schools, we should continue to support proven reform efforts," the president said Sept. 30.

The Democrats defend federal programs designed to address specific needs, such as Title I, which aims to raise the academic achievement of the nation's lowest-performing students, and the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Program, which gives grants for school efforts to combat drugs and violence.

What's more, the Democrats contend, Mr. Clinton's plan for new national tests of 4th graders' reading skills and 8th graders' math abilities will give school districts and parents yet another tool to know how well their children are learning,.

"National education tests will help parents get a more realistic picture of how their children are doing compared to other children across the country," Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said in a statement to announce that 42 Democrats are committed to filibustering a bill that does not allow the controversial plan to move forward. "They will also provide clues about how we can better education the next generation."

But it's the Republicans--joined by many liberal House Democrats--who are digging in their heels on testing. House members voted 295-195 on Sept. 16 to support an appropriations amendment that blocked test funding. Some Democrats said they don't want the tests until the federal government does more to address economic and social needs in inner cities.

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