With the Senate on a fast track to take up major education legislation in the next month, Democrats said last week they were worried about moving forward without an accompanying budget plan from the White House.
That was one of the more popular refrains from Democrats as Secretary of Education Rod Paige fielded questions on President Bush’s education agenda from the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on Feb. 15.
“I think as we are fashioning legislation, the American people will want to know how these various proposals are going to be funded,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the panel’s ranking Democrat. “That’s going to be a real key.”
He also expressed concern that the president’s proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut over 10 years may cut into education spending.
“We’re worried that no child be left out of the appropriations process,” added Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., in a reference to the Bush plan, titled “No Child Left Behind.”
President Bush unveiled a 28-page outline for his K-12 agenda during his first week in office, but will not prepare the actual legislation needed to turn it into law. Instead, he is letting members of Congress take the lead on drafting a bill.
Secretary Paige told the committee that a blueprint for the administration’s federal budget proposal for fiscal 2002 would be available at the end of this month, but that a detailed, program-by-program proposal would not be submitted to Congress until the first week of April.
So far, the only indication on how much money President Bush is willing to devote to schools comes from his promise during the 2000 presidential campaign to increase education spending by about $25 billion over five years.
Still, the Senate appears prepared to move forward on legislation. The committee’s chairman, Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., said at the outset of the hearing that the chamber’s leadership had reserved floor time during the first half of March to consider education legislation, “so the committee’s work over the next several weeks is clearly cut out for us.”
The legislation being drafted would reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the nation’s main K-12 law. Congress tried but failed to reauthorize the law last year.
Joe Karpinski, a spokesman for committee Republicans, said the panel was tentatively scheduled to debate a bill the last week of February. But that legislation won’t include some of the most controversial elements of Mr. Bush’s plan, such as allowing the use of federal funds for private school vouchers. Those matters will be addressed when the bill reaches the Senate floor, Mr. Karpinski said.
Meanwhile, the House late last week began a series of field hearings on K-12 education in preparation for taking action on its own bill.
Testing Faces Questions
President Bush’s proposal to require annual testing in grades 3-8 in schools receiving federal Title I aid was the focus of considerable attention during the Senate hearing from members of both political parties. (“Usefulness of Annual Testing Varies By State,” Feb. 21, 2001.)
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., noted that his state decided against administering a test in all grades, choosing instead to focus on grades 3, 5, and 8. He asked Secretary Paige whether the Virginia test would count under the president’s plan. Mr. Paige promised to provide an answer later.
Mr. Warner said he was worried about the added costs for testing throughout grades 3-8.
“The federal government already has a number of unfunded mandates,” he said.
Mr. Paige said during the hearing that the administration would provide some financial assistance to states in “developing” such annual tests, but he did not say specifically whether the aid could also go toward the ongoing costs of administering the tests.
In his opening remarks, the secretary sought to emphasize that the administration would not seek to micromanage all aspects of the final legislation.
Describing the president’s proposal as a “framework” for the coming debate, Mr. Paige said the emphasis was on the principles of accountability for results, choice for parents and students, and flexibility. But, he added, “we are open to your ideas on how we should meet these.”
Mr. Paige also argued that the Bush proposals were “the next logical step” following changes made to the ESEA in 1994, the last time the law was reauthorized. “The president’s plan does not ask states to begin anew or start a new set of ideas,” he said. “Rather, it asks them to pursue more vigorously the same kinds of changes that they’re already making in response to the 1994 reauthorization.”
One concern of many committee Democrats is Mr. Bush’s plans for consolidating K-12 initiatives into a small set of funding sources to focus on such matters as disadvantaged students, teacher quality, and reading.
Some senators inquired about their favorite programs last week, such as school modernization, class-size reduction, and the E-rate, which provides discounts to schools and libraries for telecommunications services. Under the president’s plan, the education-rate would be combined with various federal technology programs now under the Department of Education into one broad source of funding.
But that didn’t go over too well with at least one Democrat.
“I’m not too keen on consolidating the E-rate,” Sen. Mikulski said.
A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as Senate Moving Quickly To Consider Education Package