Congress Faces Lengthy Education Agenda

January 15, 2003 7 min read
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The 108th Congress came to Washington this month facing a hearty plate of education agenda items, from reauthorization of special education and early-childhood programs to higher education legislation and possible school-related tax breaks.

And then there’s the federal budget, which promises plenty of charges and countercharges this year, given the serious differences of opinion between President Bush and leading Democrats over what’s an adequate amount to spend on education.

Not only that, but lawmakers still have to finish overdue appropriations bills for the Department of Education and many other federal agencies for fiscal 2003, which began Oct. 1, more than three months ago.

To top things off, there’s also a new dynamic on Capitol Hill, now that Republicans have a 51-49 majority in the Senate, thanks to the November elections. With President Bush in the White House and the House still in GOP hands, Republicans hold the reins of power in Washington.

“Republicans will continue the ‘results’ focus that began with enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act last year,” said David Schnittger, a spokesman for Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. “That focus on results will carry over to special education, Head Start reauthorization, and even higher education.”

Given the GOP’s slim margins, however, especially in the Senate, bipartisanship will be essential to completing work on major education bills. Historically, such bills tend to pass with wide bipartisan support.

Mr. Bush, meanwhile, commemorated the one-year anniversary of the signing of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, which passed on a solid bipartisan vote, with a Jan. 8 ceremony at the White House. (“Ed. Dept. OKs First Accountability Plans,” this issue.) But if a Democratic press conference the same day was any indication, budget disagreements are spoiling the cooperative spirit of a year ago.

“Time and again, we had discussions with ... President Bush about the significance of those reforms” in the No Child Left Behind Act, said Rep. George Miller of California, the senior Democrat on the House education committee. “He said, ‘If you accomplish this, the money, the resources, will follow.’ One year later, he’s broken his promise.”

Last week, 42 Senate Democrats and Independent Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont sent a letter to Mr. Bush urging him to support a fiscal 2003 Education Department budget about $7 billion above the $50.3 billion request for discretionary spending Mr. Bush made early last year.

But President Bush and others in his administration were quick to defend their budget plans.

“This school year, we’re providing more money than ever before to help states and school districts,” Mr. Bush said at the White House last week. “Over the last two years, we’ve increased funding for elementary and secondary education by 49 percent. That’s a large increase.”

The president also gave a few hints of his future spending plans for fiscal 2004. He intends to step up his request for Title I for the coming fiscal year by another $1 billion, to a total of $12.35 billion. And, he will ask for a $75 million increase to the nearly $1 billion request for reading programs in fiscal 2003. That said, it remains unclear what his overall spending plans for the Education Department will be, given his emphasis on a “wartime” budget and tax cuts in a time of federal deficits.

At the Democratic press conference on Jan. 8, Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois suggested that Congress “suspend” the No Child Left Behind Act’s new mandates if President Bush does not agree to provide what the opposition party deems a sufficient increase in education spending.

The budget isn’t the only education matter lawmakers will debate in the 108th Congress, however.

Both Rep. Boehner and Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the incoming chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, have made clear that their first order of business on the schools front is the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the nation’s main special education law.

GOP leaders have emphasized such issues as reducing paperwork required of schools, refining discipline rules for special education students, and increasing accountability to ensure better academic results. And a debate over private school choice under the IDEA is expected.

Under current law, if a school system decides it cannot provide adequate services for a student with disabilities, the district may arrange to send the child to a private school and use public funds to pay the tuition.

But some Republicans have expressed interest in an approach in which parents would have the option of sending a child to a private school— using public money—if they believed the public school could not adequately meet that student’s special education needs. Leading Democrats have made clear their opposition to special education vouchers.

Mr. Schnittger, Chairman Boehner’s spokesman, offered ambitious goals for the House education committee this year, saying it would reauthorize not just the IDEA, but also Head Start, the Higher Education Act, and the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act.

In addition, the House last year approved a bill to overhaul the 1996 welfare-reform act, though the revision never became law. The issue will be back this session.

An aide to Republicans on the Senate education committee was more cautious about how much will be accomplished in 2003.

Beyond special education, the Higher Education Act and early-childhood programs are likely education-related priorities for the Senate committee, said the aide, who asked not to be named. But negotiations over the Higher Education Act, for example, would not begin in earnest until the IDEA is completed, possibly next fall.

“We’re not likely to do anything [on the HEA] until we get some guidance from the administration,” the aide added.

Among many other issues, the effort to reauthorize the Higher Education Act will likely probe the effectiveness of, and possibly tighten, 1998 accountability requirements in the law tied to teacher education.

“We thought that the accountability provisions were constructive, but states ... didn’t implement them in a conscientious way,” said Ross E. Wiener, the policy director for the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group. He argued that the data states submitted to meet HEA reporting rules had “limited meaning” within states and even less meaning in state-to-state comparisons.

Head Start

On a different front, President Bush is hoping to beef up the educational aspects of the Head Start preschool program, which serves close to 1 million poor children, building on significant changes made during the last Head Start reauthorization in 1998. He may push a 2000 campaign proposal to move Head Start from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Education Department. (“White House Head Start Testing Plan Draws Critics,” this issue.)

Some Head Start supporters, though, worry that the program’s educational goals will be emphasized at the expense of its comprehensive nature. Last week, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., said he was concerned about the direction the administration may be taking.

“Health issues, nutrition issues under Head Start ... could get lost in the Department of Education,” he said.

At the same time, Congress will likely address the welfare-reform law this year—which contains provisions for early-childhood education—having failed to complete work on reauthorizing the measure in 2002. That legislation includes the Child Care and Development Block Grant, currently funded at $4.8 billion.

Last May, Sens. Gregg and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, unveiled a bipartisan bill that would authorize a new, billion-dollar program to improve early-learning. A central tenet was to encourage states to devise unified systems of early care and education. That bill would likely be folded into the larger reauthorization.

School-related action is likely to occur outside the education committees as well. For example, child-nutrition programs are up for reauthorization in the agriculture committees.

Tax Matters

And then there’s tax policy. Last year, President Bush called for a federal income-tax credit of up to $2,500 to help families transfer children out of low-performing public schools—to other public or private schools—or to offset other educational costs, such as private tutoring. Critics attacked it as another way to provide federally financed vouchers, since the refundable credits would amount to cash grants.

House Republicans took a slightly different approach, pushing a bill through the Ways and Means Committee to provide a tax deduction for low- and middle-income families of up to $3,000 for K-12 expenses.

Another tax effort may be to continue and expand the tax deduction for teachers’ out-of-pocket expenses, begun in 2002. Mr. Bush initially proposed $400 per year, but Congress ultimately set the figure at $250. Republicans also may seek to launch a pilot voucher program for students in the District of Columbia, a plan that is certain to sharply divide members largely along party lines.

Assistant Editor Linda Jacobson and Staff Writers Sean Cavanagh and Lisa Fine Goldstein contributed to this report.

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