Education Bill Ready To Face Final Hurdles

By Erik W. Robelen — June 20, 2001 8 min read
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After wading through more than 100 amendments, the Senate last week overwhelmingly approved a bill overhauling the federal role in schools.

Leading senators now are preparing to work out the final provisions with their House counterparts. The finished product, which along with the recent tax cut stands out as a leading priority for the White House, could be in President Bush’s hands by August.

There is remarkable similarity in the architecture of the bipartisan bills revising the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which passed both houses with big majorities.

But plenty of work remains, from negotiating spending-authorization levels and defining what constitutes a failing school, to deciding how much flexibility the new version of the law will allow and who gets that flexibility.

Despite the broad Senate support—the bill was approved 91-8 last Thursday—the process has faced some close calls since the Senate took up the bill the first week of May. In fact, just last week, several leading Republicans were threatening to hold up the bill over an amendment that would have trimmed some spending flexibility in it. They argued that the proposal, which was narrowly defeated, would have undermined a bipartisan deal negotiated, in its broad outlines, before the bill reached the Senate floor.

For their part, Democrats had an easier time beating back one of the amendments that would have caused them the most heartburn: a proposed pilot voucher program. Eleven Republicans joined all but three Democrats in voting it down.

The bill approved June 14 would reauthorize the ESEA, the main federal law for precollegiate education, which includes Title I and a host of other programs.

Secretary of Education Rod Paige urged lawmakers to move quickly to complete their task, “even if [Congress] has to go into a summer school session.”

Both the Senate and House bills reflect many core elements of Mr. Bush’s education agenda, including expanded testing requirements, new educational options for students in failing schools, and a new reading initiative. The bills also would make higher demands on schools to improve student performance or face tough consequences, though there is considerable debate over how stiff those demands should actually be.

Through compromise, some of the president’s plans have not survived. Democrats successfully resisted Mr. Bush’s proposal to allow publicly funded tuition vouchers for students in persistently failing schools, for example. And while the bills contain some flexibility and program consolidation, they do not go as far in that direction as the president initially proposed.

A Growing Bill

Indeed, during the weeks of debate, the Senate kept busy adding programs, from new ideas to long-standing initiatives that had been consolidated or removed in the original bill. For example, amendments authorized funding for school libraries, prevention of suicide and alcohol abuse, and physical education.

And while the GOP has styled itself as the party of “flexibility” and streamlining in the ESEA debate, some Republicans carried amendments promoting their favorite projects.

Sandy Kress, the president’s chief education adviser, said that overall he was pleased with the Senate bill, calling it a “very good step” that incorporates most of the Bush education agenda.

“It’s virtually all there, but there’s so much more,” he said in reference to the bill’s steady expansion. “The grade would not be high on the issue of consolidation.” He said the House did a better job in consolidating programs, and he predicted that negotiating that terrain would be among the primary tasks when House and Senate members meet in a conference committee.

A related change that has raised some eyebrows is the bill’s authorization level: It climbed substantially during the Senate debate. Mr. Bush proposed spending $19.1 billion on ESEA programs in fiscal 2002, an increase of about $670 million. The Senate bill would authorize $33 billion.

“It is frightening how much money has been added in terms of authorizations as we go forth,” said Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn. “I say this as someone who believes we need to significantly invest increasing amounts in education.”

The House bill would authorize about $23 billion for ESEA programs next year.

Democrats—who gained control of the Senate this month when Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican Party—insist that the White House must be prepared to raise education spending dramatically to meet the new demands imposed in the legislation.

Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., the new majority leader, suggested early last week that he might delay sending a final bill to the president until the Democrats had gotten a commitment on funding. But a day later, Mr. Daschle seemed to soften his stance.

“It certainly wasn’t my intention to throw down any gauntlets,” he said. “I just suggested that before we can complete our work, we have to know what kind of resources are going to be there.”

Vouchers Go Down

Last week’s floor action included what many believe to be “Taps” for voucher supporters’ hopes of getting such aid into the ESEA legislation this year. The amendment offered by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., to launch a pilot voucher initiative for poor children in several cities and states was shot down, 58-41.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was planning to offer his own voucher amendment, even more finely tailored to help low-income students only in the District of Columbia. But shortly after the Gregg amendment was rejected, Sen. McCain announced that he would not offer it. Two of the pro-voucher groups that he had worked with on the amendment asked him to withdraw it.

“They said they were afraid they were going to lose, and that they wanted to wait ... and build support for it,” Mr. McCain said.

Asked whether it might resurface during the appropriations process, he said, “Maybe, but I’m not optimistic, to tell you the truth, because I think this was the best time to have the debate and the vote.”

Another amendment that garnered substantial controversy last week came from Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn. It would have limited the flexibility in a pilot version of the “Straight A’s” initiative.

Under a Straight A’s compromise in the Senate, up to seven states and 25 districts could consolidate funding from several major programs into a block grant in exchange for negotiating five-year performance agreements with the Education Department. Sen. Dodd’s amendment would have removed the federal after-school program from the list of programs. But Republicans said the Dodd proposal would do great harm to a bipartisan deal worked out in advance of floor action.

“If that had won today,” Sen. Frist said shortly after the vote, “it would have put the whole bill in jeopardy.” He noted, with frustration in his voice, that Republicans had already compromised on Straight A’s by agreeing to make it a pilot program rather than open it for all 50 states to apply.

Straight A’s will be another tough issue for the House and the Senate to negotiate. The House took a slightly different approach, allowing 100 school districts but no states to apply.

Other thorny issues include how to define “adequate yearly progress” for schools. Persistently failing schools face a series of consequences under each version of the ESEA, such as paying students’ transportation costs to attend another public school, allowing parents to direct a portion of a school’s federal aid to pay for private tutoring, or even replacing the school staff.

Daniel Weiss, a spokesman for Rep. George Miller of California, the House Education and the Workforce Committee’s ranking Democrat, said that the definition of adequate yearly progress was a central issue, and that there were clear distinctions between the Senate and House approaches.

“The House bill is better on accountability,” he argued, saying that tough language to help close the achievement gap between students of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds has been one of Mr. Miller’s top priorities. “Almost more than anything else, it’s the reason that George Miller and President Bush got together” to work on the education bill, Mr. Weiss said.

The White House and leading senators have said the House language is too stringent, and would make too many schools into “failing” schools. They negotiated an alternative, though critics have attacked it as being too complex and not demanding enough. (“Bush, Democrats Compromise As ESEA Bills Take Shape,” May 16, 2001.)

But the Senate will carry to the conference table the most expensive distinction between the two bills: guaranteed $2.5-billion-a-year increases for special education. That is almost certain to be a tough issue, especially now that Democrats will take the lead for the Senate negotiating team, facing off against members from the Republican-controlled House.

Early in the Senate debate, a bipartisan amendment was approved that would shift funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act from the discretionary to the mandatory side of the budget, locking in increases for years to come and dramatically increasing spending. It would allow up to $181 billion in extra spending over the next 10 years.

Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., said that while he has mixed feelings about the legislation, he views the special education provision as one of the best.

“There’s good and bad,” he said. “I mean, I think that the fundamental good part is the IDEA.”

Asked about the chances the special education funding provision would survive, Sen. Jeffords said: “I’d say 50-50, no more than that.” He has indicated that disagreement with the White House over special education was one reason for his Capitol-shaking switch to Independent status, aligned with the Democrats.

While a few Republicans support the idea, many others, in addition to President Bush, do not.

“We’re for more money,” said Mr. Kress, the president’s adviser. “The question for the [House-Senate] conference will be, do we want to get to the mandatory issue, and do we want to get to truly extraordinary levels of increase ahead of the reform that needs to take place?”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2001 edition of Education Week as Education Bill Ready To Face Final Hurdles


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