Governors Lend Voices to GOP's Flexibility Debate

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Handing over control of federal dollars to local officials has long been a top goal for Republicans in Congress, and with the nation's main K-12 education law under scrutiny this year, debates on exactly where the money should go are beginning to reverberate on Capitol Hill.

Different factions in the GOP are looking at proposals that would send more federal funding directly to either school districts or state agencies. At the same time, several Republican governors are emerging as potentially powerful players in the federal education policy debate.

Two main proposals have surfaced as the GOP majority wrestles with how to write its legislative proposal for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act this year.

One, which is still on the drawing board, would give state leaders flexibility in a broad range of federal education programs in exchange for certain accountability measures. The other would meld funding for 31 education programs into a block grant and send the money directly to local districts with a requirement that 95 percent of the funds be spent in the classroom.

Rep. Michael N. Castle

Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., the former governor of Delaware who chairs the subcommittee on K-12 education, said in a recent interview that Super Ed-Flex would be considered as part of a GOP proposal on the ESEA reauthorization. "This whole business of Super Ed-Flex is really starting to come into play," he added.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, meanwhile, has not yet signed on to such a plan, said Joe Karpinski, a spokesman for Republicans on the committee. But the committee's GOP members will consider the governors' views as they draft ESEA legislation--a process that is still weeks away. "We certainly realize the governors have been out there and innovative in education," he said.

Meanwhile, Super Ed-Flex threatens to overshadow a popular GOP initiative from last year known as the Dollars to the Classroom Act. This year's bill, HR 1494, would block-grant funding for 31 education programs and mandate that 95 percent of the money be spent at the local level.

The Dollars to the Classroom Act quickly passed the House late last year, and GOP leaders vowed to bring it back in their ESEA proposal this year. But while Republicans are still in early discussions on how they will write their ESEA legislation, the Dollars to the Classroom Act seems to have fallen from sight, some observers say.

"The influence of the governors right now is very apparent," said Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators, a group that has worked for increased control at the district level for its members, who include superintendents and other central-office officials. "When the governors come to town, the talk of [district-level] control wanes."

"All the relationships and goodwill between Republicans and the governors will spill over into Super Ed-Flex," added Jay Diskey, who served as a spokesman for GOP members of the House education committee until earlier this month. Mr. Diskey made his remarks before leaving the post on May 7.

"Republicans in the House have always been willing to listen to governors," he said.

But not every governor will support Super Ed-Flex in its proposed form. Gov. Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, a Democrat who is the president of the National Governors' Association, will oppose the bill because it would not do enough to ensure that states are held accountable, said his press secretary, Sheri L. Woodruff. The NGA plans to create a bipartisan, compromise ESEA proposal this summer, she added.

Accountability Theme

Gov. John Engler

One of the chief proponents of state control and Super Ed-Flex, Gov. John Engler of Michigan, had close ties with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.. This year, Gov. Engler and Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, both Republicans, have made appearances on Capitol Hill to lobby for more state control. Other GOP supporters of Super Ed-Flex include Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin, Gov. George E. Pataki of New York, and Gov. Michael O. Leavitt of Utah.

In February, Mr. Engler asked the Senate education committee to consider block-granting ESEA programs and creating the Super Ed-Flex option for states that wished to participate.

"Let's consolidate the 60 [ESEA] programs, shrink the bureaucracy, cut the waste, and put the responsibility squarely on the governors' shoulders," he said in committee testimony then. "Give us the flexibility, we'll get the results."

Under the Super Ed-Flex proposal touted by the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, most of the ESEA programs would be included in the plan, including Title I local grants, Goals 2000 school reform grants, the Technology Literacy Challenge Fund, and some vocational education programs. States and the Education Department would agree on performance objectives, according to the Heritage plan. States, in turn, would receive rewards, and the privilege of staying in the program, if they met their goals.

Super Ed-Flex would build on the theme of accountability for the effective use of federal dollars, an increasingly popular idea that Mr. Clinton and Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley--both former governors--had a hard time selling to the state chief executives during debate in 1993 over Mr. Clinton's Goals 2000 school reform program. ("Riley, Reich Unveil Reform Bill--And Win Welcome in Congress," April 28, 1993.)

"It's standards-based reform coming back in a different guise," said John F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank, and a former aide to House Democrats. "It reinforces the whole system [the governors] said they were against."

Vol. 18, Issue 36, Pages 1, 18

Published in Print: May 19, 1999, as Governors Lend Voices to GOP's Flexibility Debate
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