Diverse Interests Converge In ESEA Lobby

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When Congress reconvenes in Washington this week, its members can expect to get an earful from the groups here that represent K-12 education.

This month, Republican leaders are preparing to unveil significant details of their plans for reauthorizing the $15 billion Elementary and Secondary Education Act. That means lobbying efforts on behalf of the precollegiate community—teachers' unions, principals, school board members, superintendents, state officials, and others—are about to enter a new and more dynamic phase.

There appears to be agreement among many education-group officials that the broad outlines of the nation's biggest federal K-12 law should not change—especially the $8 billion Title I program for disadvantaged students, with its emphasis on standards-based reform. Early in the year, 16 groups signed off on a document outlining principles for the ESEA reauthorization that reflected such sentiment.

Such consensus is no small accomplishment, some lobbyists and congressional aides are quick to point out. But things get more complicated when it comes to deciding what exactly needs to change, and how.

Richard Long

"Most groups say the basic [ESEA] statute is okay," said Richard Long, the executive director of the National Association of State Title I Directors and Washington representative for the International Reading Association. "Everybody's tweaking is different."

And some of those writing the ESEA legislation contend that things are more confusing this time around than they have been in the past.

"It's hard to figure out where they're all coming from," Vic Klatt, the education coordinator for Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said of the education associations. Many groups, he said, have complained to the committee's staff about President Clinton's ESEA proposal, but gone on to publicly support the White House because the president has called for more education funding. Mr. Clinton issued his plan in May.

"In general, they send a pretty mixed message," Mr. Klatt said.

Political Changes

The ESEA is re-examined—or reauthorized—every five years, and a lot has changed in the political landscape since the last reauthorization in 1994, when Democrats controlled both the executive and legislative branches.

"Lobbying is much more complicated this time around," said Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. "The end result of the legislation, everyone knows, has to be a compromise between what the Republican majorities want and what the president is willing to sign."

In addition, Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House education committee, has decided to break up the huge reauthorization into a series of four or five smaller bills, focused individually on teacher quality, Title I, and other programs. The process is expected to extend well into next year.

"The way Mr. Goodling has chosen to do ESEA makes it hard to form a big coalition," noted Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators.

Evolution in the Republican positioning on education has also set the stage for a different ESEA process, some observers say. For one thing, Republicans are shying away from their old rallying cries of vouchers and eliminating the Department of Education, and are instead calling for accountability and flexibility—themes that are more attractive to education lobbyists. At the same time, the GOP has solicited more advice from education groups than in the past and has sought out their members' support.

Since Mr. Clinton released his ESEA plans last spring, most of the reauthorization talk on Capitol Hill has been fairly general. But this month, Mr. Goodling is expected to introduce a Title I bill, and Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, plans to release a draft of ESEA legislation for discussion purposes.

"In terms of the Hill actually laying down a comprehensive legislative proposal, it's not there yet," said Michael Resnick, an associate executive director of the National School Boards Association. The process "shifts into a different phase once a document has been laid down," he said.

Early Indicators

What many view as a warm-up for bigger battles was the House's passage in July of the Teacher Empowerment Act, the first piece of Chairman Goodling's ESEA package. Republicans succeeded in gaining a few Democratic supporters, but the 239-185 vote in the bill's favor did not constitute a veto-proof tally, and most of the education groups did not support the final product. The plan prompted considerable controversy because it would allow the money the president wants to spend on class-size reduction to be used instead for professional development.

Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the 2.4 million-member National Education Association, views the groups' opposition as an encouraging sign of unity. Many groups "worked in support of a lot of the same provisions" in seeking to influence the legislation, he said, though not all groups necessarily withheld their support for the same reasons.

Title I may prove to be more complicated terrain. Mr. Packer said most groups agree that no broad restructuring of the program is needed, but they have different priorities for what needs to change. "In Title I, the groups are not as a coalition advancing one specific set of ideas," he said.

Lobbyists and congressional staff members point to the Clinton administration's new accountability proposals, especially its call for ending social promotions of academically unready students, as some of the most challenging areas for finding clear consensus.

Efforts to limit the use of Title I aides for instruction could also prove thorny. The International Reading Association, which represents reading teachers and experts, is pushing aggressively for such limits.

The Clinton proposal would prevent Title I aides with less than two years of college from providing direct instruction, which has prompted some concerns from the teachers' unions, whose members include some of the paraprofessionals. Mr. Hunter of the AASA said his group was generally supportive of the plan.

Certain education groups, however, might simply choose to remain relatively silent on the matter, saving their political capital for their members' core priorities.

"For [some groups], there's not as much of an incentive to wage battles" over the Title I aides, said Michael Cohen, a senior adviser to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley.

One clear rallying point among education groups is their opposition to any cuts in the education budget. That will come to the fore in coming weeks when congressional appropriators attempt to write budget plans that meet spending caps set in 1997.

In addition, lobbyists have joined to oppose the Straight A's bill, an initiative proposed by Republicans to instill much greater flexibility in recipients' use of federal K-12 dollars; critics call it a block grant.

President Clinton has promised to veto the measure if it is passed.

But, like almost everything else, the opposition to Straight A's is not unanimous.

In fact, the Education Leaders Council, a small but growing coalition of conservative-leaning state education leaders formed in 1995, has been a strong advocate of the Straight A's approach.

Vol. 19, Issue 1, Pages 26, 33

Published in Print: September 8, 1999, as Diverse Interests Converge In ESEA Lobby
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