GOP Teacher Bill Attracts Some Democratic Supporters

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A Republican proposal to restructure federal funding for teacher hiring, professional development, and local reform programs has attracted the support of some congressional Democrats.

The Teacher Empowerment Act, which passed the House 239-185 on July 20, has gained ground among some moderate Democrats in recent weeks. It is the first bill tied to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act's reauthorization to move through the House or Senate this year.

House Republicans are optimistic that the bill, HR 1995, will pass the Senate and eventually be embraced by a reluctant President Clinton, who has threatened a veto. The legislation would rewrite the president's plan to hire 100,000 new teachers, which is aimed at reducing class sizes, and combine it with the existing Goals 2000 program and Eisenhower professional-development grants. It would create a $2 billion initiative that would allow districts to use federal money for a wide range of activities, including hiring teachers for all grade levels and reforming certification and tenure requirements.

Mr. Clinton's plan to help schools hire 100,000 teachers over seven years has proved a tough sell with GOP lawmakers, who reluctantly agreed to pay for its first year during negotiations on last year's fiscal 1999 appropriations bill. Still, it's too early to tell how the House bill will sit with the Senate.

Last month, Rep. George Miller, a prominent California Democrat, influenced many of the 24 House Democrats who crossed party lines to vote for the bill. He did so after negotiating with Republicans on language designed to instill more accountability and rework the bill's funding formula.

Crossing Party Lines

The legislation "embodies what all of us have been saying on both sides of the aisle, that questions of simple class size are not enough," Mr. Miller said during floor debate on the measure. "What we must put in the front of the classroom are qualified teachers."

Also on July 20, the House rejected, 217-207, a Democratic amendment to continue funding for Mr. Clinton's $1.2 billion hiring initiative, which gave districts money to hire 30,000 teachers in the 1999-2000 school year.

A day earlier, Mr. Clinton sent a letter to House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, threatening to veto the GOP bill. The president said he believed the measure would undermine his teacher plan, which specifically seeks the hiring of more teachers for grades 1 through 3 to reduce class sizes in the early years. Furthermore, Democrats view the Republican alternative as a block grant that could entice state and local governments to reduce their share of education funding.

Joe Karpinski, a spokesman for the Republicans on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said the panel's game plan was still to write an omnibus ESEA bill, to be released next month. Some of the Teacher Empowerment Act provisions, though, may be included in that draft, he added.

But while House GOP committee aides say the $2 billion bill offers more flexibility and accountability than any current program--a formula designed to win over school officials--it has received only lukewarm support, at best, from education groups.

Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators, one of the groups that worked closely with the House staff on the Teacher Empowerment Act, said his members had hoped the funding formula would target needy schools.

Still, many educators remain skeptical of President Clinton's teacher-hiring and class-size-reduction effort. For one, its funding is only guaranteed through this fiscal year. And some regions faced such severe teacher shortages that they could not find qualified teachers to fill other job openings.

This summer, House Republicans, led by Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, worked with Democrats on restructuring certain elements of the bill to make it more palatable to their colleagues in the minority party. Now, the bill includes a "hold harmless" provision for states and districts, stating that they could not receive less funding than they did this year under the class-size-reduction plan and the Eisenhower program, which stresses professional development for mathematics and science teachers.

The new aid would also come with some strings attached. The measure would require that 95 percent of the federal dollars be spent at the local level. In addition, an unspecified portion of that money would have to go to hiring new teachers and reducing class sizes, a provision the GOP hopes will appease Democrats.

Under the proposal, districts would also be required to use some of the funding to provide professional development for teachers, the GOP aides stressed in a July 19 press briefing. Districts would have to show that their professional-development efforts improved student achievement and lessened the gap between poor and well-to-do students. Districts would be allowed to request waivers of such requirements.

Separately, last week, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., proposed a new measure that would spend $1 billion in fiscal 2000 for intensive professional development and mentoring programs for teachers.

While the national teachers' unions have supported the concept of higher standards for teachers and better professional development, they oppose the GOP plan.

Diane Schust, the government-relations director for the 2.4 million-member National Education Association, said too many states had not focused on reducing class sizes before Mr. Clinton's plan passed last year. "A lot of states really need to push to adopt class-size reduction," she said.

Vol. 18, Issue 43, Pages 29, 31

Published in Print: August 4, 1999, as GOPTeacher Bill Attracts Some Democratic Supporters
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