Bill Previews Future Education Policy Battles

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The Senate spent last week debating an education bill almost certainly doomed to go nowhere this year.

But the lawmakers' efforts were not in vain. For as they toiled, senators gave a preview of how a future Congress might overhaul the federal government's means of supporting public and private K-12 schools.

The bill in question would offer tax incentives for saving for K-12 expenses and create a new federal block grant for states. It includes support for none of President Clinton's current education proposals, including his plans to help districts hire 100,000 new teachers and to offer federal assistance in financing school construction.

Not surprisingly, the chief executive has already declared that he will veto the bill. But while last week's extended debate may not transform the bill into law this year, it succeeded in showing how much proponents of those ideas can win in the legislative process and how far opponents will go to stop them.

Democrats, having lost on every substantive education issue they raised during the nearly weeklong debate, resorted to heated campaign-style rhetoric, blaming the Republicans for a "far right" and "extremist" agenda to dismantle federal education policy.

"What this means is the death of public education in this country," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., charged at a meeting with reporters last Thursday before the bill passed.

Republicans, on the other hand, argued that they simply wanted to transfer power from a federal bureaucracy to parents who want to save for their children's education and to school officials who want to cut through red tape.

"By this simple, small incentive, we are causing American families to come forward with billions of new dollars to help public, private, and home schools," Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., the bill's sponsor, said of the savings accounts he believes would inspire $10 billion in education spending over the next 10 years.

"It is wrong to have a one-size-fits-all approach on the federal level," Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., said in response to a failed Democratic amendment on Mr. Clinton's proposal to subsidize the salaries of 100,000 new teachers. "We may need more teachers in some states, but we may not need them in others."

Tax-Free Accounts

Last week began with the Senate debating Mr. Coverdell's plan to allow parents to open savings accounts in which interest and capital gains would accumulate free of federal taxes, so long as parents used the money to pay educational expenses. That would include private school tuition, as well as tutoring or supplies needed by public school students.

President Clinton disagreed with the private school language so vehemently that he promised to veto the tax-incentives bill even if it included his plan to underwrite $22 billion in school construction.

"It won't do anything to strengthen our schools, and, in fact, would weaken public education by siphoning limited federal resources away from public schools," Mr. Clinton said April 21.

As the week wore on, the Senate tacked on block grant language, a ban on proposed new national tests, and several other amendments. It also rejected Democratic attempts to replace the entire bill with legislation for the president's proposals for school construction and hiring 100,000 new teachers. ("Amending the Bill on Tax-Free Savings Accounts," in This Week's News.)

The bill eventually passed the Senate on a 56-43 vote late Thursday.

The Senate now must reach a compromise with the House, which passed a related bill with just the savings incentives last year.

But after that, a presidential veto is almost certain, and supporters are unlikely to come up with the two-thirds majorities needed in both the House and Senate to override it.

Glimpse of the Future?

Last week's debate offered several insights into future federal education policy debates.

It revealed that Senate Republicans hold a slight majority of votes for their plan to blend all federal K-12 programs, other than special education, into a block grant that would give states and local districts wide discretion over how to spend federal dollars.

Block grant supporters won the 50 votes they needed to include their plan in the bill.

But they didn't gain the support of Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., the chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, which deals with education, or Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman of the subcommittee that handles education appropriations.

They also have left themselves open to rhetorical attack that Republicans want to "abolish the Department of Education for elementary and secondary education," as Sen. Daschle told reporters.

But Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., the block grant amendment's sponsor, believes his "triple option" adequately addresses that concern. It would give states the chance to continue receiving federal dollars for specific programs, such as Title I or drug-free schools; to accept federal money in one chunk without earmarking for specific education initiatives; or to give Education Department funds directly to districts in block grants.

"I am not sure why anyone should oppose that triple option allowing a different way of doing things," Mr. Gorton said last week. "Only if we regarded the present education system as perfect should we reject an experiment of this sort."

Last week also highlighted growing support for federal school choice legislation.

In the early 1990s, voucher proponents couldn't get a majority in the Democratic-controlled Congress. Once Republicans won a majority in the House and Senate in 1994, they could muster the votes to pass voucher bills in both chambers, but could not overcome Senate rules requiring 60 votes to overcome procedural roadblocks raised by voucher critics.

Now, by shifting the debate toward tax incentives instead of cash payments, choice proponents are likely to send a bill to their liking to the White House. Even with a certain veto, such an outcome would give advocates of school choice a moral victory.

"If [the Republicans] had somebody in the White House who was for vouchers, they'd have a national program," said John F. Jennings, a former education aide to House Democrats who is now the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington nonprofit seeking public support for schools.

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