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Oops, They Did It Again

Congress spends a good deal of time "reauthorizing" laws, in effect reupping the leases on some major pieces of business.

But one law that lawmakers never have to renew is the one of unintended consequences. The Senate's flurry of activity last month to craft a tardy fiscal 2003 budget package is a case in point.

The Senate on Jan. 23 surprised many in the education community by altering a $390 billion domestic- spending bill to boost education's 2003 increase to about $7 billion. But the legislative artistry involved in making it all balance—basically across-the- board cuts to everything else in the bill—inadvertently produced an ugly side effect.

As the Senate spending bill currently stands, it would trigger a provision in the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001 and allow states an extra year to initiate the assessments at the heart of that law. And given that the No Child Left Behind Act is the heart of the president's education legacy, that sort of surgery is definitely not what senators had in mind.

"No one realized it when it was happening on the [Senate] floor," one Democratic Senate aide said last week. "I think it will be addressed."

Read, "fixed."

The trouble started when Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, brought the so-called "omnibus" spending bill to the Senate floor. Sen. Stevens, to make room for spending on drought relief and other non- education priorities, included a 1.6 percent cut of everything else in the bill. Then Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, inserted a $5 billion add-on for certain education spending. It carried a 1.3 percent across-the-board cut.

That, and other language in the bill, brought the overall education hike to nearly $7 billion.

No one noticed that the combined 2.9-percent cut knocked an allocation to states for creating new tests $4 million below a $380 million threshold in the No Child Left Behind law. That provision—Congress' admission that it was laying some heavy new costs on states—decreed that if assessment appropriations fell below that level in fiscal 2003 (and $390 million in fiscal 2004), states would get a year's grace on starting those tests.

The House and Senate are now working out differences on the spending bill and could reach accord this week. Senate staff members say the testing trigger will be back in the safety position by then.

—Ben Wear

Vol. 22, Issue 22, Page 27

Published in Print: February 12, 2003, as Federal File

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