Senators Eyeing Extensive Changes To K-12 Schools Bill

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Republicans and Democrats alike on the Senate education committee are expected to seek substantial changes to the reauthorization bill for key K-12 programs their chairman has crafted when they take it up this week.

For one, the bill provides more flexibility for states and school districts in how they spend federal dollars for precollegiate education—but that flexibility does not go far enough for many Republicans, and it goes too far for many Democrats.

"That should make the perfect compromise," said Joe Karpinski, a spokesman for Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

Mr. Jeffords, a Republican who is more liberal than most of his GOP colleagues, unveiled details last week of his plan to reauthorize the $15 billion Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the flagship federal legislation for schools. The committee was scheduled to begin deliberations on the bill March 1.

Republicans will likely offer amendments to step up flexibility on spending, provide increased public school choice, and allow Title I portability, meaning that money under the $8 billion program for disadvantaged students would follow individual students to the public or private schools of their choice.

As for Democrats, they will likely seek to include provisions to support school construction, protect President Clinton's class-size-reduction program, and demand more accountability from states and districts.

'Bad Advice'

In some respects, the Jeffords bill would make only modest changes to existing law, representatives of education groups say.

"In general, we're pleased with the approach they took on Title I," said Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators. "We don't believe that Title I needed radical surgery. It needed tweaks, and [the bill] did that."

But Mr. Hunter and some others in the K-12 community argue that several other provisions of the bill contain excessive flexibility that undermines current law.

One of the most notable trouble spots for them is a new section under Title VI of the bill. Mr. Jeffords took his cue from the National Governors' Association in crafting this flexibility proposal, which would allow participating states to negotiate "performance partnership agreements" with the Department of Education to combine money from many ESEA programs.

That approach has also come under fire from some conservative lawmakers and education analysts, who say it falls far short of the more ambitious flexibility package many Republicans have championed—the proposed Academic Achievement for All Act, called "Straight A's." The House, on a largely party-line vote, approved a pilot version of that initiative last fall.

Sen. Jeffords' bill, for example, states that the same level of Title I funding would have to be provided for all schools as they receive under current law to ensure targeting to disadvantaged students. And it would give the Department of Education more leverage in negotiating agreements with states than under Straight A's.

Even before the Jeffords' bill was unveiled last week, two prominent conservatives took aim at the NGA approach.

"You've recently been given some bad advice by, of all places, the National Governors' Association," William J. Bennett and Chester E. Finn Jr. argue in a Feb. 9 memo to Senate Republicans.

Mr. Bennett served as the secretary of education, and Mr. Finn as an assistant education secretary, in the Reagan administration from 1985 to 1988.

Patricia F. Sullivan, the director of education legislation for the NGA, said Mr. Bennett and Mr. Finn neglect to mention the dramatically stepped-up flexibility that would be available to states.

"They are really focused on the targeting issue, and I wish they would talk about the flexibility issue," she said.

Overall, however, Ms. Sullivan said the Jeffords bill was a mixed bag. For example, the NGA does not support certain aspects of the teacher-quality title—specifically, its consolidation of funds from the class-size-reduction program and the Eisenhower professional-development program into a flexible grant program for teacher quality.

Democrats on the education committee are particularly unhappy with that approach, especially because it would not authorize dedicated funding for class-size reduction.

"Democrats will wage a very aggressive effort to offer their amendments in committee," said James P. Manley, a spokesman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the ranking Democrat on the education committee.

The Senate has fallen considerably behind schedule in its plans to reauthorize the ESEA. Originally, Republican leaders had indicated that they would be prepared to vote on a bill last year.

The House, meanwhile, decided to divide the ESEA into pieces. It has taken action on several major parts of the bill, including those dealing with Title I, bilingual education, and teacher quality.

Vol. 19, Issue 25, Pages 28, 31

Published in Print: March 1, 2000, as Senators Eyeing Extensive Changes To K-12 Schools Bill
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