Committee Debate Marked By Partisan Rancor

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Efforts to wrap up the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in the House education committee got off to a rocky start last week, as Democrats charged that Republican proposals to increase flexibility for states and districts would undermine their top priorities.

The intense partisanship echoed recent ESEA deliberations in the Senate education committee, and served as a further reminder that it may be hard to find enough common ground to approve a reauthorization in this Congress.

The legislation under consideration last week, HR 4141, is the last in a series of bills the House will consider to reauthorize the ESEA, the main federal law in precollegiate education. It would authorize roughly $2.4 billion in funding for technology, safe schools, Title VI block grants, and other programs. The committee spent two days considering amendments, and it is scheduled to reconvene this week to finish up work on the bill.

But the measure contains a number of provisions that have raised the ire of Democrats, who are in the minority. And if last week's actions were any indication, committee Republicans are not about to make the kinds of changes that could win them over. So far, every Democratic amendment has been rejected, largely along party lines.

"I believe this markup is truly a waste of time," said Rep. William L. Clay of Missouri, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, referring to the process by which committee members hammer out the details of a bill.

"This bill cannot be repaired; it is too far gone," he said. "It ignores virtually every education priority of our members and the Clinton administration."

The same day, April 5, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley issued a letter warning that he would recommend a veto if the bill was delivered to the president in its current form.

Among the rejected Democratic amendments was one that would have increased the authorization of the Reading Excellence Act to $5 billion over five years—the same amount that Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the Republican Party's presumptive presidential nominee, recently proposed for a new reading initiative.

Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., said that when he heard about Mr. Bush's proposal, he thought, "Welcome aboard." Republicans defeated the initiative, which Rep. Kind co-sponsored with Rep. Dale Kildee, D- Mich., 26-19.

Other Democratic amendments would have increased funding for school construction and class-size reductions.

Consolidating Programs

One of the most contentious provisions in HR 4141 would allow states and school districts to transfer funds among several major education programs in the bill, along with money in the Teacher Empowerment Act and the emergency-immigrant-education program, which were both approved in other ESEA legislation passed by the House last year. ("GOP Plan Would Give States More Spending Flexibility," April 5, 2000. )

The "transferability" provision was included at the behest of a handful of education groups that mostly represent school-district-level concerns, such as school board members, administrators, and urban schools. But it is staunchly opposed by many other education groups, as well as House Democrats and the Clinton administration.

And while the proposal would not eliminate any programs, other aspects of HR 4141 involve some consolidation. The bill would merge the federal after-school program with the current Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act.

By combining the two programs, the bill "provides more than $1 billion for the kind of intensive and ongoing drug-and violence-prevention programs that will help our children make positive life choices," said Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., the chairman of the Early Childhood, Youth and Families Subcommittee.

Democrats argue that the ESEA should continue to provide a dedicated funding stream for after-school programs.

The GOP bill also would consolidate eight separate technology programs into a new $731 million program to help schools with educational technology. "It is my belief that this flexible fund—and not the splintered association of programs we have under current law—will best meet the needs of tomorrow's workforce today," Mr. Castle said.

When the committee reconvenes, a heated debate is expected over provisions relating to religion in schools. For one, the bill stipulates that no Department of Education funds should be provided to a state or district that has a policy of "denying or which effectively prevents participation in constitutionally protected prayer in public schools by individuals on a voluntary basis."

Secretary Riley wrote in his letter that such language would require the department to make decisions better left to a federal court.

"It would inappropriately force the department into the middle of numerous local disputes involving prayer during classes, at graduation exercises, and at sporting and other public events, and permit no remedies for violations other than the Draconian sanction of the termination of all funds," he said.

"[T]his bill is loaded down with mandates to local schools regarding school prayer and religious expression, a clear sop to the far right," Rep. Clay maintained last week.

Vol. 19, Issue 31, Pages 39, 42

Published in Print: April 12, 2000, as Committee Debate Marked By Partisan Rancor
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