Clinton Administration Shifts Gears on Reading Bill

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The Clinton administration said last week it would support the Republican version of pending literacy legislation instead of holding fast to the reading proposal President Clinton unveiled during his 1996 presidential campaign.

The Republican-backed literacy bill, the Reading Excellence Act, is a counterpart to President Clinton's America Reads proposal, which would provide money for schools to recruit 1 million volunteer tutors and hire reading specialists and AmeriCorps workers.

Marshall S. Smith, the acting deputy secretary of education, told reporters last week that the administration would support the Republican bill, HR 2614, with a few amendments to a pending Senate version.

Mr. Smith gave credit to Mr. Clinton for bringing the reading issue to the forefront. "There is a lot of optimism that we'll be able to see a bipartisan literacy bill," Mr. Smith said. ("Effectiveness of Clinton Reading Plan Questioned," Feb. 26, 1997.)

Bills to create the new literacy programs and revamp a federal charter school program won quick passage in the House as members rushed to finish business last week. But the Senate won't take up the measures until Congress returns to Capitol Hill next year.

While the Education Department maintained that the Reading Excellence Act is similar to America Reads, GOP observers and others had a different view.

"It is nothing like America Reads," said Jay Diskey, the spokesman for the House Education and the Workforce Committee. "This White House is going to take credit for anything that happens in education in this town."

Chasing the 'Parade'

Teacher training, based on reliable, replicable reading research, was a priority of the GOP measure's main sponsor, Rep. Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, the chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee.

"Instead of relying on AmeriCorps volunteers who have even less training, the Reading Excellence Act focuses on training teachers to teach reading," Mr. Goodling said in a statement.

Bruce Hunter, the government-relations director for the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va., said the White House was backed into its current position after many education groups announced their support for the Republican bill.

"They saw a parade and ran around and got in front of it," he said. "They knew that all of us liked Mr. Goodling's bill better than their bill."

One contentious element of the Republican bill would allow schools in impoverished areas to give "tutorial assistance grants" to parents of children having trouble learning to read. The grants could be used to hire tutors on lists compiled by school officials. ("GOP Tutoring Grants Inspire Concerns, Praise," Oct. 22, 1997.)

While Democrats and many education lobbyists have described the so-called TAGs as vouchers, Republican sponsors dispute that, noting that schools would be the ones to choose which providers' names appeared on lists of potential tutors.

Mr. Hunter said, in supporting the House-passed bill, the White House may be hoping to gain leverage for removing the TAG provision.

The education funding bill Mr. Clinton signed last week sets aside $210 million toward a new literacy proposal, pending congressional passage of authorizing legislation for such a program by next April 1. Mr. Clinton had requested $260 million for America Reads.

The charter school bill, HR 2616, would give incentives to states that allow autonomy but have a system to hold charter schools academically accountable. It increases the time a charter school can receive a federal grant, from three to five years.

Charter School Hike

One of HR2616's chief sponsors, Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., spent the congressional session heavily promoting charters as a promising education reform.

Some Democrats and educators, though, have cautioned against putting too much hope into the relatively new movement. Charter schools receive public funding but operate free of most state regulations.

While the bill that would reconfigure the federal charter school program has yet to pass the Senate, more funding for charter schools is already in the fiscal 1998 budget.

The 1998 appropriation for charter schools was set at $80 million in the spending bill Mr. Clinton signed last week.

The allotment represents an increase over the $51 million spent for fiscal 1997, but also fell short of Mr. Clinton's request of $100 million. In 1996, federal funding for charters was only $18 million.

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