ESEA Conferees Reach Accords On Social Issues

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House and Senate negotiators last week tackled some of the vexing social issues embedded in the pending education bill, as they cast votes on provisions concerning hate crimes, school prayer, and school access for the Boy Scouts.

On a party-line vote, the conference committee rejected a Republican amendment that would have ended federal funding for hate-crimes-prevention programs that "discriminate against, denigrate, or otherwise undermine" the religious or moral beliefs of participating students. Democrats objected that the language was vague and could be used as a pretext to end virtually all federal aid for such initiatives.

The House-Senate conference committee on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act met Oct. 30 to ratify agreements on a range of programs, from safe schools and educational technology to American Indian education. The meeting had been rescheduled several times in recent weeks, primarily because of concerns over anthrax contamination in Capitol Hill office buildings. It was the first such session since Sept. 25.

Lawmakers are hoping to complete work on the bill, a top domestic priority for President Bush, before the end of the year.

At the end of the meeting, Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said it was his hope that in the next two weeks, the conference panelists would reconvene to consider all outstanding matters. Those issues would include some tough unresolved questions about testing, accountability, flexibility, and spending levels.

The most protracted debate last week came when Mr. Boehner offered the amendment to the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities program related to hate crimes. Every other vote during the meeting was unanimous.

A Back Door?

He said the measure was intended to address complaints that some federally financed materials on hate-crimes prevention have suggested that "certain traditional Christian religious beliefs teach intolerance and prejudice towards others."

"What we're trying to do," Mr. Boehner said, "is find language that would prohibit that type of activity from being funded with taxpayers' dollars."

In particular, some conservatives are troubled by how homosexuality is handled in such materials. But Democrats insisted that the proposed GOP measure went too far.

"We all believe that it's important to protect the religious freedom and liberties of students and their parents, but the language offered could easily become a back door to stopping funding for all hate-crimes-prevention programs authorized under the bill," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

"There are people who believe on religious and moral grounds that women are not equal," said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. "If we have two students or two [legal] guardians who say that, does that end the program?" she said.

The committee agreed to language from the Senate version of the bill—reflective of existing law—that authorizes the Department of Education under the safe-schools program to issue grants for hate-crimes prevention. Last month, more than 100 organizations urged Congress to retain the program, especially in light of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab assaults reported in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Separately, the conference panel passed a measure on access to school facilities by the Boy Scouts of America. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that the organization could deny membership to homosexuals, many districts have rethought their links to the Boy Scouts.

The new measure stipulates that no school or district could deny the Boy Scouts—or any other group listed as a "patriotic society" under the U.S. code—access for after-school meetings if other outside groups were allowed to use the facilities.

Responding to a concern by Rep. Patsy T. Mink, D-Hawaii, Mr. Boehner said there was a "gentlemen's agreement" that the bill's final version would say that if a single school violated the measure, the school would face the possible loss of federal money, not the entire district.

Either way, the approach is wrongheaded, said Michael D. Resnick, the National School Boards Association's associate executive director for advocacy.

"We never supported the whole issue of tying federal funds to whether the Boy Scouts should be allowed on campus," he said. "It sounds to me that whether it's at the school district level or schoolhouse level, communities are being forced to make a decision about the Boy Scouts that if they don't decide it the federal way, they lose their federal money."

The House-Senate negotiators also signed off on new school-prayer language in the ESEA. It directs the Education Department to provide guidance—to be revised every two years—on constitutionally protected prayer in public schools to states, districts, and the public.

Also, as a condition of receiving federal aid, all districts would have to certify to their state educational agencies that no policy "prevents or otherwise denies participation in constitutionally protected prayer in public schools." The department would be directed to issue rules or orders to secure compliance when a district failed to adequately do so.

Susan K. Muskett, the legislative-affairs director for the conservative Christian Coalition of America, praised the agreement.

"We ... think it's a very positive development in light of the daily infringements on constitutionally protected prayer," she said.

But not everyone was so enthusiastic.

"I think it's troubling in a number of ways, and frankly will depend in very large measure on how it's implemented by the Department of Education," Elliott M. Mincberg, the legal director for People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group, said of the provision.

"Our objection to this kind of provision ... is the fact that what is constitutionally protected prayer is something that is somewhat in doubt," he said. He argued that judgments on school prayer are better left to local communities and federal courts.

In other action by the conference committee last week, lawmakers voted to consolidate several existing school technology programs into a more flexible grant initiative. They also made minor changes in how money is distributed under the impact-aid program, which provides financial aid to districts whose tax bases are limited by the presence of federal installations.

Vol. 21, Issue 10, Pages 36, 38

Published in Print: November 7, 2001, as ESEA Conferees Reach Accords On Social Issues
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