House and Senate must now bridge education bill differences
By Ian Christopher McCaleb
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush's long-prized overhaul of the public education system is nearly in the can, now that the Senate has joined the House in passing a bill that will dramatically alter the routines of students, teachers and school systems nationwide.
But before Bush can sign his bill into law, negotiators from the House and Senate will have to face each other down across a conference table and work out agreements on several differences between their competing versions of the bill.
While none of those differences are viewed as contentious -- save for several extra billion dollars in spending called for by the Senate -- lawmakers from both parties have to be feeling some apprehension about their pending meetings. The upcoming education conference marks the first occasion the House, controlled by the GOP for more than six years, will hold a high-level negotiating session with the Senate -- controlled by the Democrats for a week-and-a-half.
The Senate passed its education bill Thursday evening by a 91-8 vote. Senate debate was initiated seven weeks ago by the one-time majority Republicans, who handed over control to the Democrats last week when Vermont Sen. James Jeffords' departure from the Republican Party took effect.
The House version sailed through that chamber by a 384-45 vote on May 23.
Bush, decrying what he has called "the soft bigotry of low expectations," has promoted reform of the public education system as one of the most pressing priorities of his young administration. Those low expectations, he has said, have resulted in school systems promoting many children not competent at their own level to the next grade.
As an early candidate for the 2000 Republican nomination for the presidency, Bush introduced his education overhaul proposals months before the primary election season opened.
He called for a testing regimen to help get lagging or failing schools on track, saying student proficiency in reading and math must be measured so parents will know whether their children are advancing equitably -- and so school administrators will know if their teachers are meeting local standards.
Those tests would be administered every year to children in grades 3-8 and would be developed by local systems, in consultation with the Education Department. High school students would be tested once, and schools that donít improve in the short term would be granted higher levels of federal aid.
If those same schools donít register significant improvement after three years, however, they stand to see much of their federal money stripped away and given to parents, who could opt to have their children tutored, or send them to charter schools or better-performing public facilities. Poorly performing schools also run the risk of a complete shutdown after three years, to be reopened later with a new staff in charge.
But spending remains a point of contention between the parties. The Senate bill adds some $15 billion in extra funding to the priorities outlined by the president and the House.
Speaking after the Senate passed its bill Thursday, new Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, said, "The funding levels got out of control."
"The Senate even voted yesterday to say that not all these programs have to necessarily be funded to the maximum extent," Lott argued.
But the majority Democrats believe the administration's 2002 budget proposal doesnít include enough outlays for the education priorities that the president has long espoused.
"We can't have reform without resources," Democratic leader Sen. Tom Daschle said late Thursday. "And that will be the next step. How can we assure that we have the resources to commit to the things that we have now said will be important public policy? But that will be left to another day."
That other day is rapidly approaching. Bush would like to sign a bill into law at his earliest convenience, so he can lay claim to education reform and a massive tax relief package as the legacy of the first six months of the first GOP administration since 1992.
Aside from spending levels, some other areas of contention will need to be cleared up. For example, the House bill calls upon schools to certify that their students are proficient in English after those students have logged at least three years in U.S. classrooms.
There is no such language in the Senate bill.
And, the House has called for a block-grant system that would allow states to use their federal education dollars as they see fit, as long as they sign pledges guaranteeing that state test scores will demonstrate a steady curve upward.
Democrats, fearing that the monies will not be applied to education priorities, have resisted the idea of block grants since the Republicans came to power in early 1995, arguing that the federal government must monitor how federal funds are being put to local use.
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