Value of Two GOP Education Probes Debated
Brandishing a dictionary-sized computer printout listing more than 760 federal education programs, Rep. Peter Hoekstra last May denounced such bureaucracy as indefensible.
Flanked by other Republicans in a wood-paneled, marble-accented room in the Capitol, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations vowed that his series of "Education at a Crossroads: What Works, What's Wasted" hearings would continue to plumb the depths of the federal education bureaucracy. His enthusiasm soon spread to the Senate, where GOP budgeters last fall created an education task force with a similar mission.
This month, the House and Senate hearings will draw to a close. A report by the Senate Budget Committee Task Force on Education, led by Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., is expected as early as next week. Mr. Hoekstra says he also plans to release a final report, initially slated for late last year, in the spring.
But after 21 hearings and visits to 26 schools and colleges by House members, and testimony by about 30 expert witnesses before the Senate panel, the impact of the highly touted projects remains uncertain. And the findings may not be quite what the GOP wanted to hear, Democrats and some education lobbyists say.
"I don't think that whatever report [Mr. Hoekstra] puts out is going to achieve what he expected when he started the Crossroads hearings," Rep. Patsy T. Mink of Hawaii, the ranking Democrat on the House subcommittee, said in an interview. "I can't see that it will have much of an impact among the members of Congress."
Both reports are expected to reiterate GOP positions on reducing federal bureaucracy and sending more federal money directly to schools, according to committee aides.
Republicans, including Mr. Hoekstra, say the efforts have already helped further recent drives for block grant funding, school choice, and other education reform efforts supported by the GOP, and will influence this year's spending bills.
Mr. Hoekstra, R-Mich., said in an interview that he speaks regularly with congressional appropriators, and that his findings will underscore the need for less federal intervention and more local control of schools. "There are a lot of signals, lot of activities moving in the direction that Education at a Crossroads" took, he said.
Sen. Frist's report will go straight to Senate Budget Committee leaders, who plan to release their annual blueprint for funding levels for education programs this week.
Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a Washington coalition of education groups that lobbies for more federal school aid, said the Senate report would likely have "some impact" on the chamber's budget and appropriations process. Sen. Pete V. Dominici, the New Mexico Republican who chairs the Budget Committee, is interested in consolidating some education programs, Mr. Kealy noted.
Others contended that both the House and Senate hearings were used as little more than a sounding board for advocates of GOP-backed concepts.
Ms. Mink said the Democrats routinely received little advance notice of the House panel's plans, leaving her party to scramble to find witnesses.
But Jon P. Brandt, a spokesman for Mr. Hoekstra, disputed that claim and said that Democrats were given ample notice of the hearings.
Still, some observers say the momentum and public support for such probes have fizzled.
"The effect of the House and Senate hearings was inside baseball that energized the faithful on both sides without having much effect," said Bruce Hunter, a senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.
Last year, the Democrats quickly disputed the Republican count of more than 760 federal education programs, pointing out that some of the programs on the GOP list had little relevance to K-12 education, Mr. Hunter said. ("GOP Targets Government Waste, Bureaucracy in Schools Spending," May 14, 1997.)
John F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington research group, said that many witnesses effectively defended federal programs, such as Title I, which some GOP members had considered moving into block grants.
"It wasn't an assault on federal aid to the degree that the organizers may have hoped," said Mr. Jennings, a former aide to Democrats on the House education committee. With the midterm elections approaching, he added, Republicans may be worried that reports advocating block grant funding and vouchers may not resonate as well with voters as President Clinton's education agenda.
So far, the tab for the House subcommittee's efforts has reached $23,892. Six of the panel's hearings were held in Washington, while 15 field hearings took members to places such as Milledgeville, Ga., Phoenix, and Des Moines, Iowa. Mr. Hoekstra has planned two more field hearings for March 20 and 30, in Colorado and Pennsylvania respectively.
"We thought it was important to get input at the grassroots level," Mr. Hoekstra said. "We want it to be a well-thought-out report. ... We're not in a rush to get the report out."
Ms. Mink said her staff plans to issue a Democratic report, when--and if--the GOP findings are released.
The Senate task force, meanwhile, took a different approach to gathering its information. Sen. Frist held all but one of the six hearings in Washington. A lone field hearing was held early this year in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Sen. Frist's office picked up the $1,375.11 bill for the hearing because the senator also conducted other business in his home state on that trip, according to his spokeswoman, Margaret Camp.
Ms. Camp said Democrats were allowed to invite a witness to every panel except one. They may complain, she added, because "the Republicans right now have the most innovative approaches to education."
Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, said it would be impossible to gauge the effect of the hearings until the recommendations were released. But considering the dozens of congressional hearings held each day, only in extreme cases do such investigations make a major impact on policy, he said.
"I don't think anybody should expect miracles to emerge," said Mr. Finn, an assistant secretary of education under President Reagan who testified at the Republicans' request in both the Senate and House hearings. "But it's always worth members of Congress trying to learn something."