Clinton Plans For Education Hit GOP Snag

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Earlier this year, President Clinton touted a new tobacco tax as the funding vehicle for his plan to put 100,000 new teachers in K-3 classrooms. But, just as debate over a tobacco deal has bogged down in Congress, the prospects for the president's 1998 education agenda have dimmed.

On May 19, Mr. Clinton endorsed a Senate tobacco bill that would bring $516 billion to the federal government and states over the next 25 years. But it would not earmark any money for spending to reduce the average K-3 class to 18 pupils, as the president proposed in his State of the Union Address in January.

The proposed compromise is the product of a deal negotiated by the bill's sponsors, the White House, and the leadership of the National Governors' Association. The White House pushed to include $12 billion over seven years for the teacher initiative, according to a source involved in those talks, but Republicans insisted that the money go either to block grants or existing programs.

The administration's apparent capitulation on the teacher issue raises the question of whether Mr. Clinton will accomplish any of the points in the ambitious and expensive education agenda he outlined in January. ("Clinton Seeks Teacher Hires, Small Classes," Feb. 4, 1998.)

Even though administration officials say they hope there will be money for 100,000 teachers in the final tobacco bill, the Senate deal does not bode well for the initiative. Indeed, chances that any tobacco deal will pass Congress in the near future faded when the Senate refused last month to cap tobacco companies' liability in future health-related lawsuits as part of a settlement of suits brought by 41 state attorneys general.

The Senate bill may be up for debate again this week, but the House has not yet cleared a tobacco bill through its Commerce Committee.

Meanwhile, the second big piece of the Clinton education package--$10 billion in tax breaks over 10 years to aid school construction--has been all but ignored by Congress. This week, the House will debate a fiscal 1999 budget resolution--a nonbinding spending blueprint--that recommends no funding for school construction. The Senate budget plan, which guides its tax writing and appropriations committees, also ignored school construction.

Activist Agendas

But administration officials still maintain they will make headway this year.

"We've never seen [class-size reduction and school construction] as anything other than end-game proposals," Marshall S. Smith, the acting deputy secretary of education, said in an interview. Their fate "depends on how [Congress] sets the priorities and the money gets spent at the end of the year."

However, so far this year--in a reversal of recent history--Republicans have shown they may not give in to President Clinton's demands. In the past, the administration cornered the GOP into accepting huge spending increases on federal school programs and creating new tax incentives to pay college costs. The difference this year has been that Republicans have outlined their own education agenda.

"We're a lot further along on our agenda than Clinton is on his," boasted Jay Diskey, the communications director for the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

Unlike in 1996, the GOP this year crafted its own extensive K-12 wish list: school choice through tax incentives and publicly financed vouchers; block grants created by merging precollegiate programs and freeing them from federal regulations; and a big increase in funding for special education.

The Republicans retained their enthusiasm despite Mr. Clinton's veto of their District of Columbia voucher bill last month.

On another front, the House and the Senate have passed a bill with the tax incentives, designed to encourage parents to save for educational expenses such as private school tuition and public school supplies. The Senate version of the bill includes a block grant that would encompass just about every federal K-12 program. The Republicans are preparing a compromise that may be sent to Mr. Clinton in the coming weeks.

Even if both GOP bills are vetoed, Republicans say they may win a victory in the court of public opinion. By backing school programs--even ones that fail to become law--the party shows its commitment to meeting voters' concerns about the schools, they say.

Some observers expect partisan debate to drag on into the fall, when it can become fodder for the midterm congressional campaigns. But others aren't as skeptical.

"If President Clinton could wave a magic wand, he would have his programs take effect," said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow of government studies at the centrist Brookings Institution in Washington. The same is true for Republicans, he added.

But in talks with Republicans, Mr. Clinton could not create a class-size-reduction program out of whole cloth.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the tobacco bill's chief sponsor, convened representatives from the White House and the National Governors' Association to divide up the $196.5 billion tobacco manufacturers agreed to pay states over the next 25 years to compensate for past Medicaid costs incurred by smokers. The balance of the $516 billion bill would be raised from federal taxes and spent on federal initiatives to reduce smoking.

White House aides eventually agreed to a bill that would set aside half the money for the governors to spend on whatever they wish. The other half would give governors discretion to spend on a menu of federal programs, including the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Professional Development Program, and initiatives addressing child care, substance abuse, and children's health insurance.

"It's a big opportunity lost," said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a Washington-based umbrella group that lobbies for federal school aid.

"It's a $7 billion hole in the president's [five-year] budget. I haven't heard what the fall-back position is," Mr. Kealy said, referring to the cost of the class-size reduction plan.

Regardless of the tobacco bill's fate, both parties can be expected to launch full-scale assaults for their programs this summer and fall.

This month, according to GOP sources, a coalition of Republican governors, senators, and House members will unveil a campaign to promote the education agenda their party has pushed for the past 18 months.

"The idea is to have a combined agenda at a time when the Clinton administration is active in talking about theirs," said one Republican source familiar with the plan.

Not long ago, Republicans had no such unified message. In 1995 and 1996, conservatives--including many GOP leaders--called for abolishing the Department of Education and severely cutting the programs it funds. The message turned off many voters, especially in swing districts that can decide which party controls Congress.

In 1995, Democrats led the GOP by 40 percentage points when pollsters asked which party had the best education agenda, according to internal Republican National Committee polls. That gap has since narrowed to 13 points, the Republicans say.

According to Mr. Smith, the Education Department's No. 2 official, Democrats sense that the public prefers class-size reduction and school construction to the Republicans' focus on school choice.

Judging Priorities

"The D.C. voucher is not a proposal to change the odds for kids across the country or address a national problem," he said prior to Mr. Clinton's veto of that measure. And the tax-incentive plan for educational savings "is not a proposal to change schools or help poor or moderate-income people," Mr. Smith said.

By contrast, he argued, the administration is addressing concerns that state policymakers have already shown are relevant. Since California--at the urging of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson--started making grants to lower class sizes weeks before the 1996-97 school year, governors in other states and from both political parties have proposed similar initiatives. Likewise, legislatures in many states are raising or considering raising school construction spending this year.

"I don't see legitimate competition to our class-size or construction proposals," Mr. Smith said.

Republicans in Washington don't argue about such initiatives' popularity. They just don't believe the federal government should be paying for them.

"These are good proposals for the states to do," Mr. Diskey, the House education committee spokesman, said.

Some Republicans see their plan to increase special education funding as an answer to Mr. Clinton's new programs. If the federal government paid 40 percent of schools' added costs of complying with federal special education rules, as it promised to do in 1975, local districts would be flush with cash to spend on teachers, construction, or whatever they wish, influential Republicans argue.

Vol. 17, Issue 38, Pages 1, 19

Published in Print: June 3, 1998, as Clinton Plans For Education Hit GOP Snag
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