Nearly a year after President Bush announced his plan to revamp the federal role in K-12 education, Congress appears on the cusp of delivering a final bill to the Oval Office.
As of last week, the last major hang-up boiled down to Democrats’ demand for more money. Otherwise, House and Senate education leaders said they had all but completed the bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and were making plans to hold a final meeting of the ESEA conference committee to ratify some unfinished business.
There is no doubt that the final package will have the president’s imprint. But how closely it resembles the 28-page plan Mr. Bush put forward just after taking office in January depends in part on the observer’s perspective.
“On the score sheet, we think the legislation really goes a long way toward fulfilling the president’s vision, the president’s priorities,” said Sandy Kress, Mr. Bush’s chief education adviser. Among other provisions, he noted new testing requirements, greater demands for raising student achievement, expanded options for children in low-performing schools, and added flexibility in spending federal aid.
Mr. Kress cautioned, however, that final legislative language in some key areas had not yet been worked out. And he conceded that the bill differs materially from the president’s plan. For example, the measure would hand states notably less spending flexibility than the president proposed.
“We would have liked more,” Mr. Kress said.
Some conservatives outside the administration are decidedly tepid about the package.
“It’s a modest improvement over current law. Nothing to celebrate,” said Chester E. Finn, Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and an assistant secretary of education under President Reagan.
“This bill is to the president’s original proposal as Burger King is to a five-star restaurant. You can get fed there, and that’s better than being hungry,” he said. “Much of what I liked ... has vanished.”
One of Mr. Finn’s main disappointments was the early elimination of President Bush’s plan to provide private school vouchers for students in failing schools. Democrats made it clear from the beginning that vouchers were a non-starter.
Overall, the final bill will contain provisions for practically all sides to like and dislike.
“It’s a classic combination of taking a little something from everyone,” said Dan Gerstein, a spokesman for Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn.
‘The Big Kahuna’
The money issue remained unresolved last week. Democrats, and a handful of Republicans, have been pushing to make special education funding mandatory, locking in large increases over several years and skipping the annual appropriations process.
Even though special education is subject to a separate law—the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—some lawmakers saw this year’s ESEA debate as a golden opportunity to press the matter.
Part of the thinking is that by making IDEA funding mandatory, Congress could free up billions of dollars more in discretionary spending—a different part of the federal ledger—for ESEA programs. President Bush has proposed an additional $1 billion for state grants under the IDEA for fiscal 2002, but opposes locking in mandatory increases.
Late last month, supporters of mandatory funding for special education put the issue before the 39-member House-Senate conference committee on the ESEA.
Senate Democrats were joined by three Republicans in pushing for the change, but the GOP majority on the House side defeated the measure. To be included in the final bill, the rules of the conference committee dictate that a majority of conferees in both chambers agree to a measure.
“This is the big kahuna,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who succeeded last spring in attaching the proposal on special education funding to the Senate ESEA bill. He said the provision represented the best chance for Congress to “fully fund” its share of special education costs, “not rhetorically, but actually.”
House Republicans were united in rejecting the proposal. They said they support reaching full funding—generally defined as federal payment of the additional cost of educating a special education student under the IDEA’s mandates. That added cost is pegged at 40 percent of the cost of educating a student without a disability. But any such proposal should await the IDEA reauthorization next year, the Republicans argued.
As of last week, the Democrats’ strategy remained unclear. They have a majority in the Senate and could hold up the final conference report.
Even without further spending concessions from Republicans, the Department of Education is poised to get a major increase—possibly a record-breaker—for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. The Senate approved a spending bill that would provide about $6.5 billion more for education, for a total of $48.7 billion; the House went still higher, to about $49.3 billion. Mr. Bush originally recommended spending $44.5 billion.
Asked last week about the possibility of getting an ESEA bill to the president by Christmas, congressional leaders gravitated to the word “hopeful.”
Perhaps the clearest victory for President Bush in the education bill is on testing. A linchpin of his program has been annual testing in grades 3-8 to measure student progress in reading and mathematics, and the use of the National Assessment of Educational Progress as a benchmark to ensure that state tests are a fair measure. On those matters, Congress appears to have delivered.
One significant change, though, is that the final package is expected to exclude Mr. Bush’s proposal that the Education Department hand out financial rewards or penalties to states based on whether they have made sufficient progress in improving academic achievement.
“We recommended rewards and sanctions; we preferred it,” said Mr. Kress, “but we’ve had to ... work with Congress in a spirit of compromise.” At the same time, he said the use of NAEP as a check on states’ own tests would “shine a light” on states that were doing particularly well or poorly.
Determining how best to hold low-performing schools accountable has been one of the most contentious issues in the ESEA debate. While the legislative language on that matter was not final as of last week, the deal reached by congressional leaders is expected to allay objections that the provision would have labeled too many schools as failing.
“I believe there’s going to be a lot more flexibility on the ‘adequate yearly progress’ [expected of schools], which has been the number-one issue for us,” said G. Thomas Houlihan, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.
The agreement stipulates that states and districts would not deem a school as failing unless it had not made adequate progress for three years, rather than one, as language in the House bill had proposed. The agreement also would create a category of so-called “safe harbor” schools that had made some progress, but had not technically complied with the progress requirements for a particular subgroup of students.
Amy Wilkins, a policy analyst with the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, said she was generally pleased with the accountability plan.
“On the accountability stuff, we very badly wanted scores disaggregated by race and income. That’s there,” she said. “We wanted to be sure schools were making some measurable progress in the percentage of kids from all groups at the proficient level. I think that’s there as well.”
The provision allowing private school vouchers as one exit vehicle from failing schools has been eliminated, but the bill, as agreed to, includes two related provisions from the original Bush plan. Students would be allowed to transfer to another public school if their school failed to make adequate progress for two straight years; and, after three years of poor performance by a school, a portion of its federal aid would be used to pay for supplemental services selected by parents, including private tutoring.
How Much Flexibility?
One of President Bush’s other central themes has been handing states and districts greater flexibility in spending federal aid.
The final bill is expected to provide more flexibility than allowed under current law. But it falls notably short of the president’s original plan, especially for states.
A core flexibility initiative—Mr. Bush called it “charter” states; Republicans in Congress dubbed it “Straight A’s"—would have allowed a state to get most of its ESEA funds in a block grant in exchange for negotiating a performance agreement with the Education Department. If a state did not participate, its districts could do so.
“The original charter-states idea ... has been reduced to a mere shadow of what was proposed,” said Mr. Finn.
Under the final plan, the amount of federal aid a state could pool and spend at its discretion has been sharply cut. States could use only what are called state-activity and -administration funds—a small fraction of what districts receive—under major ESEA programs, plus the Innovative Education Programs block grant, a relatively modestly funded program. The new initiative would also be limited to up to seven states.
In a second nod to flexibility, the bill would allow up to 150 districts to enter “local flexibility demonstration projects,” in which a district could pool its funds under the major ESEA programs, except for Title I, in exchange for signing an “accountability contract” with the federal department.
Beyond that, all districts could shift up to 50 percent of their non-Title I funds between programs.
“I think [Democrats] did extremely well” on the issue, said Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. “The flexibility that’s in the bill has been driven to the local level.”
Some flexibility advocates called the demonstration program a step forward.
“Given the number of districts that would be allowed to choose that option, I think we’ll still have sufficient evidence and experience to support a broader Straight A’s provision in the future,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
The bill would also reduce the number of ESEA programs from 55 to 45, according to a GOP summary. President Bush’s plan originally envisioned 32 discrete programs.
Ultimately, Mr. Kress suggested, political realities made a greater reduction in programs difficult.
“We think it’s moving in the right direction,” he said. “You know how hard it is to do that.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2001 edition of Education Week as ESEA Passage Awaits a Deal On Spending