Lawmakers At Odds as Debate Begins In Senate on ESEA Bill

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The Senate last week launched into a heated debate over the federal role in schools, as lawmakers took up Republican K-12 legislation that in its current form is sure to be vetoed by President Clinton.

As of late last week, the chamber was expected to resume deliberations this week on a bill to reauthorize the $15 billion Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main federal law in precollegiate education. After four days of debate, only four amendments had been considered, with dozens more possible.

"Every single time ESEA has come to the floor, it's been a bipartisan bill, passed overwhelmingly," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said at a news conference last week. But this year, he contended, "[Republicans] have insisted on a hard-core, right-wing ... alternative."

Minutes later, at a competing event, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi said the Republican bill would hand states and districts needed flexibility.

"In one school, they may need computers. The next school, they may need additional teachers," he said. "The federal government doesn't know where the problems are and has proven it doesn't know the right solutions."

One of the bill's most disputed provisions—called the Academic Achievement for All Act, or "Straight A's," would allow up to 15 states to convert the bulk of their ESEA money into block grants in exchange for meeting new accountability requirements. Republicans helped allay the concerns of at least one in their own ranks—Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate from Maine—by agreeing to clarify that states could not use the money for school vouchers. The amendment passed unanimously, 98 to 0, on May 3, though since then, some critics have said the measure leaves room for ambiguity.

Another Republican amendment, approved 54 to 42, would authorize funds to support teacher testing and merit-based teacher pay. A Democratic alternative to the base GOP bill—emphasizing class-size reduction, after-school programs, accountability, and other Democratic priorities—was rejected on a party-line vote of 54 to 45.

A Third Way?

Meanwhile, a coalition of moderate Democrats, led by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, is seeking to win broader support for its self-proclaimed "third way" ESEA plan. The bill, which has nine Democratic co-sponsors, would streamline the ESEA, dramatically step up spending on schools, and demand educational results from districts and states. It is expected to go to a vote this week.

As of late last week, negotiations were ongoing between the so-called New Democrats and several Republicans, including Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, to find sufficient common ground for a compromise. But that goal seemed elusive.

"It'll be a real long shot to reach an agreement because there are some major sticking points," cautioned Dan Gerstein, Mr. Lieberman's spokesman.

Vol. 19, Issue 35, Page 31

Published in Print: May 10, 2000, as Lawmakers At Odds as Debate Begins In Senate on ESEA Bill
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