Both Chambers Pass 'Ed-Flex' Bills

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Members of the 106th Congress have overwhelmingly approved their first draft of education legislation this year, but the terms of the amended "Ed-Flex" bill in the Senate have set the stage for future partisan debate.

The Education Flexibility Partnership Act of 1999 would allow all 50 states and the District of Columbia greater flexibility in applying certain federal education regulations.

Late last week, the measure sped through the House and passed the Senate on a 98-1 vote after nearly two weeks of debate. But the Senate version of the bill could generate further wrangling because of a Republican amendment related to the Clinton administration's class-size-reduction initiative.

Senate Democrats had proposed adding language to the bill that would authorize funding for the class-size program for six more years. The Republicans struck back March 11 by passing an amendment to allow current funding from the class-size program to be used for special education initiatives, a GOP priority.

Opponents say the provision would undermine the class-size program, and efforts are under way to remove it when the House and the Senate meet in a conference committee to resolve differences in the Ed-Flex bill.

"I urge Congress to drop the amendments that undermine last year's bipartisan agreement to reduce class size," Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said in a statement.

'Bipartisan Work'

Despite the bickering over the Senate amendments, Ed-Flex supporters hailed the House and Senate votes as a victory for education.

This bill is "a great first step in the bipartisan work that we said we're going to do in this Congress," said Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

Sen. Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Bill Frist, a Republican from Tennessee, called the legislation a "truly bipartisan measure" that couples flexibility with accountability.

Both the House and Senate bills would expand the Ed-Flex program, which is currently limited to 12 states, so that all 50 states and the District of Columbia could participate. The program allows the secretary of education to delegate authority to states to waive certain federal regulations in return for heightened accountability. ("Competing 'Ed-Flex' Priorities Emerge on Hill," March 3, 1999.)

The expansion effort has won widespread support from the nation's governors and education groups, though some civil rights advocates have expressed concern that such flexibility might allow states and districts to disregard federal accountability requirements that protect poor and minority students.

The House in relatively short order approved its version of the Ed-Flex measure last Thursday by a vote of 330-90.

During Senate debate on the bill the same day, the Clinton administration and Senate Democrats failed in their push for one of their top education priorities, an amendment sponsored by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Patty Murray of Washington that would have authorized the class-size-reduction program for an additional six years at a cost of $11.4 billion. The class-size plan received $1.2 billion in funding for fiscal 1999.

Ed-Flex bogged down in the Senate because of debate on whether to allow votes on a series of Democratic amendments, including initiatives to authorize funding for teacher hiring, afterschool programs, dropout reduction, and remedial education in schools that end social promotion. Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., offered a separate amendment to strengthen the bill's accountability provisions, which also failed.

Ultimately, Senate Republicans and Democrats struck a deal in which each side was allowed to offer up to five amendments for debate on the floor.

All five of the Democrats' proposed amendments were defeated. The main Republican amendment, which passed, essentially would allow school districts to take funding set aside for class-size reduction and use it to pay for expenses incurred under Title B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Republicans contend that the federal government has not kept its promise to commit the necessary funding to implement the IDEA law. The three remaining GOP amendments, which also passed, would allow new funding that Democrats proposed for after-school programs and other efforts to be used instead for IDEA expenses.

Although roughly 100 House Democrats joined their Republican colleagues in voting for the Ed-Flex bill, and the Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of its version, the GOP-backed Senate amendment has sparked partisan wrangling.

Sen. Kennedy, the ranking Democrat on his chamber's education committee, said he supports the Ed-Flex program, but will oppose including the GOP amendment on class-size funding in the final legislation. The amendment "would kill the commitment" of the federal government on that issue, Mr. Kennedy said on the floor following the final Ed-Flex vote.

Vol. 18, Issue 27, Pages 30-36

Published in Print: March 17, 1999, as Both Chambers Pass 'Ed-Flex' Bills
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