Education bill irks House conservatives

Senate adds billions to the package

The House is set to vote this week on President Bush’s education plan, with conservative lawmakers mounting a final effort to rescue the bill from what they say has become a watered-down, Democratic version of school reform.

And while some House Republicans say that Mr. Bush is giving too much ground to Democrats on accountability, the Senate is busy adding billions by the day to the education plan that the president says is already generous enough.

“There are a lot of Republicans who have deep concerns about this bill,” said an aide to a House conservative. “The White House has to determine how many Republican votes they’re willing to lose.”

The bill already has gained substantial Democratic support because Republicans agreed to drop private school vouchers, an idea hotly opposed by teachers unions. Of the seven votes against the bill last week in the House Education and the Workforce Committee, six were Republicans.

Conservatives say they will focus this week on strengthening other school proposals that were diluted in the committee – on school prayer, on parental consent for bilingual education, and on disciplining special-education students. But they acknowledge their prospects are uncertain.

Some features of the House education plan retain Mr. Bush’s imprint. The measure would require states to test students in reading and math in the third through the eighth grades, increase funding for teaching disadvantaged students and improving literacy, and give local schools more control over how they spend federal dollars.

A top Senate Republican aide said Mr. Bush is working pragmatically with a Congress in which Republicans hold a slim majority in the House and share power equally with Democrats in the Senate.

“He’s concentrating on things he knows he can get,” the Senate aide said. “Why waste political capital on things like vouchers when you know the votes aren’t there? He’s concentrating on the reform elements and he’s getting those. This is the first time we’re going to test all students.”

But Mr. Bush’s call for testing, too, has been dissipated somewhat at the urging of people such as Michigan Gov. John Engler, who persuaded the administration to back away from its goal of ensuring that all students become academically proficient in the next 10 years.

Mr. Bush wanted a provision that could cut federal funding for states and schools failing to meet standards for annual progress. But Mr. Engler and others persuaded the administration that 100 percent student proficiency was an unrealistic goal and might encourage school districts to lower their own standards.

The compromise includes a complex formula that rewards states and school districts as long as they are making progress among groups of students, such as black fourth-grade boys. But they would not need to ensure proficiency of all students, as the administration originally proposed.

Senate education committee staffers said their projections showed that even states with good records for school reform would not meet the standard of 100 percent student proficiency.

In the Senate, the administration’s proposal to increase overall education spending next year by $1.8 billion was met and raised, at last count, by another $9.56 billion. And the Senate is not nearly finished with the approximately 290 amendments that promise to add even more to the bill authorizing elementary and secondary school funding.

“The White House is going to get some of the reforms they’re looking for, and we’re going to get significant additional resources for education funding,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee.

Late last week, the Senate voted to nearly quadruple funding for bilingual education programs. To assist states and school districts in meeting accountability standards, the Senate also approved $200 million in fiscal 2002.

The Senate also backed an amendment by Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas to boost funding from $750 million in fiscal 2002 to $2.8 billion in 2008 for language instruction and other services for immigrant students.

These and other amendments prompted Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, to predict that much of the proposed spending will be cut in the appropriations process as Republicans try to hold the growth in discretionary spending to Mr. Bush’s stated goal of 4 percent.

Democrats also have succeeded in adding more than $130 billion for “Title 1” programs that target schools with low-income students and $120 billion for special education programs.

The actions prompted the administration last week to warn that it “strongly opposes the costly and unwarranted amendment to convert special education funding under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act to direct spending.”

The White House told Congress that its education budget was “responsible” and urged the Senate to pass a bill more compatible with Mr. Bush’s spending priorities.

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