ESEA Bill on Track As Senate Changes Hands

By Erik W. Robelen — June 13, 2001 8 min read
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Although the political shakeup in Washington may pose new challenges for President Bush’s overall agenda, it seemed to have little more than a cosmetic effect last week on the Senate debate over his plans for education.

The clearest change was that Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, whose switch from Republican to Independent status tipped the Senate balance to Democratic control, was no longer managing the education bill for the GOP. After his official change from the GOP June 5, his desk was moved overnight to the Democratic side of the aisle, where he will vote with that party’s members on organizational matters.

That is not to say the education bill is moving forward without a glitch. Several Republicans complained last week that a pending Democratic amendment, if approved, could undermine their support for a carefully crafted bipartisan deal. And a voucher amendment, if passed, could place some Democrats in an equally difficult position.

But those battles do not hinge on the change in power. As even Democrats have observed, they may now set the floor agenda and run the committees, but the same 100 senators will still be voting.

For Sen. Jeffords, one big difference beyond the move across the aisle is that he no longer chairs the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee; instead, he will head the Environment and Public Works Committee.

When asked about that change last week, Mr. Jeffords, who found himself politically out of step with the conservative direction he saw in his party and by some accounts was undermined by other Republicans on his own committee, suggested he may not have lost much.

“Well, of course, I miss that part of it,” he said of the education chairmanship. “But in practical speaking, I wasn’t chairman, so that’s one of the reasons I moved over.”

Indeed, his frustration over education issues, especially his view that the GOP leadership is unwilling to spend enough on schools, was considered critical to his decision to leave the party. (“Senate Shifts as Spending Fight Looms,” May 30, 2001.)

Returning from its weeklong Memorial Day recess, the Senate spent most of last week debating the education bill, which would reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

New Reality

But much of the action went on behind the scenes, as lawmakers adjusted to a new reality, from moving offices and changing titles to renegotiating key agreements in the Senate. Until last week, the chamber had been divided 50-50, with Republicans holding the edge by virtue of Vice President Richard B. Cheney’s status as Senate president.

Congress is working this year on the ESEA reauthorization after failing to complete work on it last year. President Bush in January unveiled a broad agenda for education that emphasized increased flexibility, tougher accountability, and greater choice for parents in their children’s education. The legislation on the Senate floor embraces much—but not all—of that agenda. The House last month approved its version of the bill, which is similar in most respects.

Many lawmakers say the power change in the Senate does not hold great significance for the ESEA debate, since a bipartisan deal has been worked out on the basic tenets of the plan. And a key negotiator on that agreement was Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the new chairman of the education committee.

Potential Pitfalls

A bipartisan—or tripartisan, since Sen. Jeffords attended—group of senators headed to the White House last week to talk about progress on the bill with President Bush.

“The president sent a strong signal that he wanted us to continue to work together on a bipartisan basis, and that he was eager to have action on the bill completed as soon as possible,” said Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine who attended.

While that process so far has largely stayed on track, potential obstacles remain. For one, Republicans and the White House are deeply concerned about a Democratic amendment expected this week that would limit the bill’s flexibility for states.

The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., would remove the $846 million after-school initiative from the list of programs states could consolidate under a so-called “Straight A’s” demonstration program. Straight A’s, a favorite proposal of GOP lawmakers, would allow a state to convert a portion of its federal aid into a block grant in exchange for negotiating a five-year performance agreement with the U.S. secretary of education.

Republicans argue that they’ve already compromised on Straight A’s. For starters, it’s now a pilot program that only seven states can try. And taking out the after-school money would further deplete the amount of discretionary spending for states.

"[If it’s removed], a lot of conservatives are going to think twice about whether there is enough left to be worth their support, given how much has been conceded already,” said Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark.

“The Straight A’s provision in the consensus bill ... is a compromise that shows both sides gave a lot,” said Sandy Kress, the president’s chief education adviser. "[The Dodd amendment] is very destructive of that finely tuned and very hard-won compromise.”

But Marvin Fast, a spokesman for Sen. Dodd, said: “We don’t think it is destructive. The legislative process is about making the best bill possible. ... Block grants have the effect of not ensuring this assistance gets to the kids who need it.”

For their part, Democrats were still unable to get a firm funding commitment from the president last week. They have pushed hard to raise education spending dramatically. Mr. Bush’s proposed budget for fiscal 2002, submitted in April, would provide about $19 billion for ESEA programs, an increase of $670 million, or about 3.7 percent, over this year. But Democrats want billions more.

Through earlier negotiations, the White House reportedly agreed to raise the bidding to a $4 billion hike, but that wasn’t enough for Democrats.

“We still feel that while we’ve got an agreement on education policy, we don’t have an adequate agreement on funding the very demanding changes that are in this bill, demanding to the local school districts,” said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn. “But the president was, I thought, open-minded on that. He said, look, we’ll continue to discuss that as the budget process goes forward.”

During the Senate debate, there has been a growing disparity between how much spending the president has proposed and how much the ESEA legislation would authorize. An analysis from the National Education Association last week found that the bill would authorize nearly $30 billion for ESEA programs in fiscal 2002, up about $12 billion, or 68 percent, from this year’s level.

“The disconnect is tremendous,” said Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the NEA.

For some, it’s an argument for yet more money, while Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, who now replaces Sen. Jeffords as the top Republican on the education committee, said the price tag is starting to spin out of control.

“We have to look seriously at the cost of this bill, as we continue to add any more of these well-intentioned programs,” Sen. Gregg said last week, responding to an amendment to add money for parental involvement.

The Power Shift

The backdrop for the education debate last week was the historic shift in Senate control triggered by one member’s change of heart on his party affiliation. The day the change was official, both Democratic and Republican leaders emphasized bipartisanship.

“I am honored to serve as majority leader, but I also recognize that the majority is slim,” said Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D. “We are required to find common ground and seek meaningful bipartisanship.”

Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., now the minority leader, also pledged to work in a bipartisan manner. Several days earlier, he issued a memo to Republicans urging “we must begin to wage the war today for the election in 2002.”

Evidence of the power shift was quickly apparent, from the public pronouncements to the subtle touches. Just off the Senate floor, the plate above the office door of Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma was replaced on Wednesday of last week. In the morning, it said “Assistant Majority Leader,” but later in the day a fresh plate stood in its place that read: “Assistant Republican Leader.”

On education, some suggest the difference will be more obvious during the appropriations battle ahead, since now Democrats will be called “chairman.”

"[That] helps us in our attempt to get more money for education,” said Sen. Lieberman. But he cautioned: “Obviously, that’s just the beginning of it; then you’ve got to get the House and the White House to approve it.”

The appropriations process will also give Democrats a chance to address policy priorities excluded from the ESEA, such as money for school repair.

Voucher Votes Loom

Several lawmakers said they hoped the Senate would complete debate on the ESEA this week. Beyond a fight over the Dodd amendment, one of the most controversial issues expected is vouchers. Sens. Gregg and Hutchinson plan to offer an amendment to create a pilot program for low-income students in several cities and states. While they concede it will have a tough time passing, another, more limited voucher amendment could have a better shot.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., plans to offer an amendment to finance a voucher program for low-income students in the District of Columbia. Mayor Anthony A. Williams of Washington, a Democrat, has issued a statement opposing the move.

Sen. McCain downplayed its chances in an interview last week. “I doubt if it’ll pass,” he said. But others were less certain of the measure’s fate. If it does succeed, that could cause heartburn for many Democrats. For one, Sen. Kennedy’s support of the ESEA bill “would be called into question,” said Mr. Manley, his spokesman.

Meanwhile, the Senate took action on a series of amendments last week. For example, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., added language for a $50 million program for school leaders. And Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., failed to win approval for an amendment that would strike Mr. Bush’s plan for expanded testing until the federal Title I program for disadvantaged students was funded at at least $25 billion a year, about triple its current size.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2001 edition of Education Week as ESEA Bill on Track As Senate Changes Hands


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