Senate Deal Would Allow Vouchers For Tutors

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Key senators and the White House have negotiated a tentative agreement on an education bill that, while it excludes a White House proposal to spend public money on private schools, would allow students in persistently failing schools to take federal dollars for private tutoring.

Senate aides said the plan would also permit a pilot version of Republicans' proposal to allow states and districts to merge some of the largest education programs into block grants. While, overall, the education package would increase the demands on states and school districts to demonstrate improved student performance, those opting to participate in the pilot would have to meet a higher threshold. And Democrats insisted on ensuring that federal money would continue to be targeted at low-income students.

Democrats and Republicans were still negotiating late last week on some finer policy points of the package, but the biggest sticking point was Democrats' demand that the White House agree to more education funding than President Bush has put forward, Democrats said.

"We are not going to have a deal unless we get a significant increase in funding," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the ranking Democrat on the education committee.

All this came during a week when the Senate battled over a budget resolution for the coming fiscal year. With help from several Republicans, Senate Democrats dealt a blow to the president's agenda when they successfully decreased Mr. Bush's proposed $1.6 trillion tax-cut plan and instead directed more money to education programs. Democrats in particular have sought this year to tie together the budget and plans for overhauling the federal role in education.

Both sides indicated late last week that a compromise could be near.

"So far, the members have pretty much reached agreement on most of the outstanding issues regarding the basic structure of the bill [and key details]," said Dan Gerstein, a spokesman for Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn.

"We think we've done a good job of getting what the president wants," said Sen. Judd Gregg, R- N.H. But he cautioned that work was still needed. "We have an extremely constructive relationship with the other side, but we aren't at the finish line yet," he said.

Changes to Panel's Bill

And Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R- Ark., promised that when the bill reached the Senate floor, he would seek to win approval of an amendment that would allow students in persistently failing public schools to use a portion of those schools' federal Title I aid to help pay tuition at private schools.

For their part, Democrats have said they would seek amendments on the Senate floor to provide federal money for school modernization and class-size reduction if they are not in the final deal.

Overall, the plan in its current form is similar to legislation approved last month by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. That bill would consolidate some federal programs to provide more flexibility for states and districts. It also included President Bush's proposal to require states to test students attending Title I schools each year in grades 3-8. The legislation they are debating would reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main federal law for K-12 schools.

But negotiations involving leading Republicans, Democrats, and the White House have produced several significant changes from the bill approved by the education panel.

Under the president's education proposal, unveiled in January, parents of students in persistently failing Title I schools could take a portion of the schools' federal dollars, matched by state funds, to attend another school, whether public or private, or to pay for tutoring. Under the tentative agreement, those funds ultimately could go to pay transportation costs to attend another public school or to pay for supplemental educational services, such as private tutoring. But Democrats have drawn a line on tuition vouchers for private schools.

"There's going to be no [private school] voucher component to this agreement," said Mr. Gerstein. He and other Democrats are confident that, with the Senate split 50-50, they have the votes to defeat a voucher amendment when the bill reaches the floor. That could happen as soon as the last week of April, when Congress returns from its Easter recess.

Mr. Gerstein said negotiations were still ongoing to enhance the targeting of federal aid to disadvantaged students, a top Lieberman priority.

"We are very pleased with the bipartisan dialogue," said Lindsey Kozberg, a spokeswoman for Secretary of Education Rod Paige. On the issue of school choice, she said: "All along we have talked about an array of choice [options]. We're going to continue to pursue all of those options."

Budget Battle

The education debate was linked to the simultaneous haggling going on in the Senate last last week over a nearly $2 trillion budget resolution for fiscal 2002. The resolution, approved April 6 on a 65-35 vote, would guide tax and spending legislation in Congress, setting overall limits for federal spending in the coming fiscal year and laying out a budget framework for the next 10 years. It does not require approval by the president.

Mr. Bush's tax-cutting agenda faced a setback when all but one of the chamber's 50 Democrats and three moderate Republicans—including Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, who chairs the Senate education committee—supported a change that would shift $450 billion over 10 years away from tax cuts. Of that total, $250 billion would go toward education and related programs, and $200 billion would be dedicated to reducing the national debt.

Also, the amendment would, for the first time, allow special education funding to be mandatory, rather than discretionary.

The next day, another amendment backed by Democrats and several Republicans shifted an additional $70 billion of tax cuts to pay specifically for special education over 10 years. Republican leaders have said they will try to restore all or part of Bush's targeted tax cut when House and Senate members meet to reconcile differences between versions of the resolution passed in each body. The House version, passed March 28, has the entire $1.6 trillion cut.

"The fact is, now only 2 cents of every $1 [of the federal budget] is invested in education," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the lead sponsor of the amendment. "That is just not enough. It shows that education is not a top priority."

President Bush has said he wants to spend $44.5 billion next year on the Department of Education, an increase of nearly $2.5 billion from the current fiscal year.

Republicans argued that the Democratic proposals take money out of taxpayers' pockets to pay for more federal programs.

"Every amendment from the other side wants to spend the surplus so [taxpayers] won't have it," said Sen. Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., the chairman of the Budget Committee.

The budget resolution is just the first step in a long and complicated budget process. President Bush was expected to release a detailed, program-by-program budget proposal on April 9. It is then up to the House and Senate Appropriations committees to pass detailed legislation.

That said, some observers maintain that the amendment to the budget blueprint last week sets the stage for a final fiscal 2002 budget with more education spending than Mr. Bush originally planned.

"I think, one way or another, this is going to result in more money for education than we were going to see 24 hours ago," Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition of education groups, said last Thursday. "It certainly shows clearly the power of education as an issue."

Vol. 20, Issue 30, Pages 29, 31

Published in Print: April 11, 2001, as Senate Deal Would Allow Vouchers For Tutors
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