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Republicans Reject Programs On Facilities, Class Size

By Joetta L. Sack — May 23, 2001 6 min read
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The federal school-facilities and class-size-reduction programs, two Clinton- era creations axed in President Bush’s education plan, narrowly failed revival attempts last week, as revision of the flagship federal law for precollegiate education inched through Congress.

The Senate, with Republicans prevailing on strictly or nearly party-line votes, rejected two amendments to restore funding for the two programs. House Republicans, meanwhile, refused to allow a vote on the issues.

However, a separate element of the existing bills, setting aside block grants for “teacher quality” programs, including smaller classes, could mean states would have more money to spend on class-size reduction than under the current program.

The House and Senate, their time and attention drawn away by debate over the proposed federal tax cut, made scant progress last week toward reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The House is planning to finish its bill, HR 1, this week, but the Senate may not complete work on the companion bill, S 1, until next month. Both chambers plan to take a week off for the Memorial Day holiday.

After three days of negotiations, House Republicans chose 28 amendments to consider. Democrats were unhappy that amendments on aid for school construction and repair, and class-size reduction were not on that list. The measure was approved by a slim majority, 219-201, virtually mirroring the partisan split in the House, as Democrats protested exclusion of the two amendments.

“It was our assumption we would be able to offer those amendments,” said Daniel Weiss, an aide to Rep. George Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

In recent years, House Dem-ocrats have believed that they might have enough votes to pass the school construction legislation, which would help districts pay interest on about $25 billion in construction bonds. The facilities program enacted under President Clinton last year provided money only for school repairs and renovation. A Republican, Rep. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, is a chief sponsor of the broader construction measure. But its proponents have never gotten the chance to find out how many Republicans would support it.

The amendments that made the list for consideration by the House range from a measure increasing school official’s authority to discipline disabled students to a resolution that schools receiving federal funds for construction should use American steel.

Amendment on Tests

One of the amendments surviving to floor debate, sponsored by Republican Reps. Michael N. Castle of Delaware and Pat Tiberi of Ohio, proposes a “Super Local Flex” plan, based on the existing Ed-Flex law, to give districts freedom from some federal education regulations. The plan would release 100 districts from all federal regulations, except for those covering Title I and bilingual education. In exchange, districts would be held to high accountability requirements through performance agreements with the Department of Education.

Other amendments that got the go-ahead to be offered in the House this week include:

A measure co-sponsored by Republican Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, and Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, that calls for deleting the requirement— championed by President Bush—that students be tested annually in reading and math in grades 3-8;· A measure co-sponsored by Republican Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, and Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, that calls for deleting the requirement—championed by President Bush—that students be tested annually in reading and math in grades 3-8;

A measure to restore President Bush’s plan to give vouchers to students in schools deemed failing for three years;· A measure to restore President Bush’s plan to give vouchers to students in schools deemed failing for three years;

A plan to set up five demonstration projects to study the effects of giving private school vouchers to disadvantaged students;· A plan to set up five demonstration projects to study the effects of giving private school vouchers to disadvantaged students;

An authorization for school officials to discipline special education students who bring drugs or weapons to school, or commit violent acts, in the same manner as nondisabled students, including suspension or expulsion;· An authorization for school officials to discipline special education students who bring drugs or weapons to school, or commit violent acts, in the same manner as nondisabled students, including suspension or expulsion;

A requirement that secondary schools allow military recruiters to visit; and· A requirement that secondary schools allow military recruiters to visit; and

A requirement that teachers with less than three years’ experience, if their schools were deemed low-performing, receive mentoring.· A requirement that teachers with less than three years’ experience, if their schools were deemed low-performing, receive mentoring.

The votes culling Democrat amendments came as members of the House education committee weathered a wave of conservative criticism over the now-voucherless bill.

But Republican supporters of the bill say it meets the “four pillars” of President Bush’s plan: accountability, local control, research-based reform, and expanded parental options.

“There’s a great deal of flexibility in this bill,” said Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the education committee chairman.

Senate Continues Debate

In the Senate, where earlier action on the ESEA has had a more bipartisan cast, Republicans and Democrats parted on last week’s key votes: on providing money to hire more teachers, in order to make class sizes smaller, and on continuing federal aid for repairs.

“We need to be sure we are not spending $2.4 billion a year in encouraging a further investment in classrooms and overhead for schools on a policy that sounds good—that is, to reduce class size even further than we have reduced it in the last 30, 40 years— when we may not be receiving an educational benefit from it,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. “We ought to allow the local school systems a choice as to whether they want to go to smaller class sizes, improve their science lab, or have better teachers, more funding for top-quality teachers, more training for teachers who are weak.”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has sought to preserve the class-size-reduction program first proposed in 1998. Sen. Murray called the 50-48 party-line vote last week against the amendment “politically motivated.” She argued that districts, as a result, would be forced to choose between two competing priorities: lowering class sizes or increasing teacher quality.

Under Mr. Bush’s proposed budget, teacher-quality grants would total $2.6 billion. The programs that are proposed for consolidation under those grants, including class-size reduction, total $2.23 billion in the current budget.

On the other big issue last week, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa urged his colleagues to continue funding for the $1.2 billion emergency school renovation and repair program. His amendment would have authorized $1.6 billion for fiscal 2002.

But the amendment failed by a 50-49 vote. Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania voted for the measure, but Democrat Zell Miller of Georgia voted no.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2001 edition of Education Week as Republicans Reject Programs On Facilities, Class Size

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