Congress Adjourns With ESEA Unfinished

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As members of Congress returned to their home districts last week after wrapping up work on a new federal budget, they left behind an unfinished agenda for reauthorizing the nation's main K-12 law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

By Nov. 22, when the House adjourned for the year, its members had taken several steps forward on the massive ESEA reauthorization. Specifically, they had approved legislation to reauthorize well over half the funding the law governs, including the $8 billion Title I program for disadvantaged students, as well as bilingual education and teacher-quality initiatives. But technology and safe-schools programs are on a list of ESEA items still unaddressed and likely to provide plenty of room for debate next year.

Meanwhile, the Senate—which adjourned Nov. 19—left even more on its plate. The chamber's education committee failed to take action on an ESEA bill this fall, as originally planned. And so far, there is little evidence that the panel's chairman, Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, who is considered one of the Senate's most liberal Republicans, has made much progress in reaching agreement with other Republicans on his committee, much less with Democrats.

Sen. James M. Jeffords

"We're really sort of dead in the water," said an aide to one conservative Senate Republican, who requested anonymity. Prime areas of disagreement between Mr. Jeffords and other GOP lawmakers include whether the committee's bill should contain some version of the so-called Straight A's legislation—which would dramatically expand flexibility in spending federal education dollars in exchange for heightened accountability guarantees—and how to handle changes to teacher-quality programs.

At a meeting of committee Republicans in mid-November, some say Mr. Jeffords agreed to remove one item from the committee bill that had riled conservatives: a new early-childhood-education initiative that would cost $7 billion over five years.

Joe Karpinski, a spokesman for the Republicans on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said the GOP meeting was designed to discuss strategy rather than to reach final decisions. "I think it would be too early to say that anything has been ruled in or out of the bill," he said. According to Mr. Karpinski, the full committee plans to take action on an ESEA reauthorization bill in late January or early February.

Mr. Jeffords sought to initiate committee talks earlier this fall after he unveiled a draft outline of his ESEA plans. But that document sparked criticism from both Republicans and Democrats. ("Fellow Republicans Urge Jeffords To Revise ESEA Plan," Oct. 27, 1999.)

On the House Side

The House, meanwhile, has opted to take an entirely different approach to the reauthorization by breaking it up into a series of separate bills. In July, the House passed the Teacher Empowerment Act by a vote of 239-185. Although not exactly bipartisan, 24 Democrats did cross party lines to support the bill. By contrast, in October, by an overwhelming vote of 358-67, members passed the Student Results Act, which would reauthorize Title I and several smaller ESEA programs. The same day, the House—on a largely party-line vote—approved a scaled-back version of the Republican-backed Straight A's legislation.

Rep. Bill Goodling

With those major ESEA elements out of the way, House lawmakers will turn their attention to what's left. First, Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, introduced a bill in early November to reauthorize the $150 million Even Start program, which supports family-literacy initiatives. The bill is unlikely to be controversial.

The same is not likely, though, for the catchall bill that will contain the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, technology programs, impact aid for districts affected by federal activities, and the Title VI block grant, among other programs.

"I expect that this [bill] will be very controversial with us," said Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators. New voucher and accountability language could also be proposed. "I won't be surprised by anything," he said.

Technology Programs

In the technology area, three of the primary programs to watch are the $425 million Technology Literacy Challenge Fund, the $149 million Technology Innovation Challenge Grants, and the $75 million teacher-training-in-technology initiative.

David S. Byer, the vice president for government affairs for the Software and Information Industry Association, said a central question was whether "the level of support for direct technology funding will be retained and possibly enhanced." He added: "I don't sense that there is a major effort to reduce ... federal support."

At the same time, Mr. Byer said, many education technology advocates are alarmed by provisions in Mr. Jeffords' draft plan that would eliminate the specific program for teacher training in technology, folding it instead into a more flexible teacher-quality program.

Vic Klatt, the education policy coordinator for the Republicans on the House education panel, said a question for lawmakers is how the various technology programs fit together. He also said members would likely seek ways to consolidate education technology programs.

Vol. 19, Issue 14, Pages 23, 25

Published in Print: December 1, 1999, as Congress Adjourns With ESEA Unfinished
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