News in Brief: A Washington Roundup

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House Committee Passes School Prayer Amendment

A House committee last week took the first step toward adoption of a constitutional amendment that would explicitly allow prayer in public schools.

The House Judiciary Committee approved the so-called Religious Freedom Amendment on a 16-11 vote.

The proponents say they want to ensure the right of voluntary prayer and other religious expression on public property. The language of the amendment is also designed to permit parents to use publically funded vouchers to pay for religious school tuition.

The action marked the first time that such an amendment has passed at the committee level.

Conservative groups, such as the Chesapeake, Va.-based Christian Coalition, hailed the committee's action, while Americans United for Separation of Church and State claimed it would destroy religious liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment.

The proposed amendment "would subject schoolchildren to coercive prayer in public schools, require taxpayers to support private religious schools and ministries, and permit religious majorities to run roughshod over minority faiths," Barry W. Lynn, the Washington-based group's president, said in a statement.

To become part of the U.S. Constitution, the amendment would need a two-thirds majority vote in the House and the Senate, as well as ratification by 38 state legislatures. The Senate so far has shown little interest in the issue.

Bill Seeks Vote on Puerto Rico

The House narrowly approved legislation last week that would give Puerto Rico the options of statehood, independence, or continuation of its status as an American commonwealth.

The proposed United States-Puerto Rico Political Status Act won approval on a 209-208 vote after a lengthy debate on whether to establish English as the official U.S. language as a condition of admitting the overwhelmingly Spanish-speaking island to the union.

As a compromise, the House approved an amendment that would encourage Puerto Rican schools to promote the teaching of English to ensure students speak the language proficiently by age 10.

Whether Puerto Rico should be expected to adopt the use of English has been divisive issue in the recurrent discussions over whether the island should become the 51st state. ("The Power of Language," Nov. 19, 1997.)

If the legislation became law, the citizens of Puerto Rico would vote later this year on the island's status. Although the measure has the support of President Clinton, its future in the Senate is uncertain.

Democrats Push Clinton Plan

Congressional Democrats, working in concert with the White House, introduced a mammoth education bill last week that would enact much of President Clinton's 1998 education agenda.

The so-called Results Act includes grants to pay for 100,000 new teachers, tax incentives to renovate or build as many as 5,000 schools, and money for standards-based reforms in urban and rural schools--all ideas featured in Mr. Clinton's State of the Union Address last month. ("Clinton Seeks Teacher Hires, Small Classes," Feb. 4, 1998.)

The bill also includes money for new grants to help teachers learn how to use computers in their classrooms.

Members of the Republican majority hinted they would ignore the Democratic bill.

"[The Democrats] believe that once you have 'more of this' and 'more of that' our schools will be fixed," said Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

Youth Tobacco Sales Targeted

Vice President Al Gore and Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala have kicked off the Clinton administration's much-anticipated national education campaign to stop tobacco sales to minors.

The government has awarded a Boston-based advertising agency a $7 million contract to place advertisements in at least one major media market in each state by the end of the year, Ms. Shalala announced in a statement last month. The company will also place illustrated materials in stores to remind clerks that selling cigarettes to anyone under age 18 is against the law.

States have already enlisted teenage volunteers to conduct compliance checks on tobacco retailers. Since 1996, more than 60,000 stores have been inspected.

States that fail to meet the federal government's goal of reducing violation rates to less than 20 percent of inspections risk losing federal substance-abuse-prevention grants, Ms. Shalala said.

Clinton Urges Literacy-Plan Nod

President Clinton recently used his weekly radio address to ask the Senate to approve a plan passed by the House for improving school literacy programs and recruiting volunteer reading tutors.

The president urged action on the Reading Excellence Act, the House version of his America Reads initiative, in the Feb. 28 address from Salt Lake City.

Mr. Clinton's original plan, proposed a year ago, would have supported the recruitment of 1 million volunteer tutors.

Last fall, the House approved $210 million for the program, primarily for teachers' professional development, with some money for training volunteers.

In the Republican response to the address, Rep. Joseph R. Pitts of Pennsylvania argued that spending decisions should be made at the local level and promoted a plan he introduced to funnel more than $1 billion in federal school aid directly to classrooms.

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