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Bush education bill one step closer to law

By Ian Christopher McCaleb
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) - President George W. Bush's long-held vision for a near-complete overhaul of the nation's public education system moved closer to reality Thursday, as the House approved a House-Senate compromise version of a long-awaited school reform bill.

The conference report passed the chamber by a 381-41 vote Thursday afternoon, and in the last step of the legislative process, it now moves to the Senate, where it will most likely pass in short order. The document will then be transmitted to the White House, where President Bush will affix his signature to the legislation.

The Senate, however, has not yet scheduled a vote on the conference measure.

Supporters of the bipartisan legislation -- dubbed the "No Child Left Behind Act" by the Republican majority -- said once enacted, it will fulfill the president's aim of evening the playing field between sectors of the population who receive adequate levels of education, and those who studies indicate cannot depend on the best education available.

"Here, we refocus our efforts and refocus our government's efforts on the neediest of our students," said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee, and the president's House point man on the bill.

"I think we've delivered a bill that this Congress on both sides of the aisle have overwhelmingly spoken about for years," said committee ranking member George Miller, D-California, who led debate for the Democrats. "It reflects our deep and uncompromising belief that just because you're impoverished doesn't mean you can't learn. Just because you're a member of a minority doesn't mean you can't learn.

"And the evidence is overwhelming that we are right," Miller said. "We can no longer accept the failure we have in the past. And we won't."

For Bush, end of an odyssey

The bill ends a sort-of odyssey for the president, who first floated his suggestions for school accountability and overhauled reading programs in November of 1999, when, as governor of Texas, he proclaimed his intention to run for the White House with education at the center of his platform.

And his insistence that the bill be completed, despite the effects on the executive and legislative branches of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, wasn't dimmed, even while the bill looked like it would be cast aside by post-attack priorities, and over funding differences between the House and Senate.

Much of what Bush called for through the 2000 election campaign and his first months in office is contained in this final version of the bill.

Drafted as a sweeping rewrite of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the bill authorizes $26.5 billion in federal spending on education, up $4 billion from the last fiscal year. Its centerpiece is a scheduled testing regimen intended to identify schools that are failing in their mission to move their students toward reading and math proficiency at grade level.

Schools that regularly miss their set standards, which at Bush's behest are to be set in place at the local level for grades three through eight, will be given opportunities and extra funding to improve over a period of years. Should the poor performance continue at some schools, the bill contains a series of provisions that would allow students to transfer to other public institutions, or use some of the federal monies meant for their school to pay for tutors or other instruction.

A limited portion of students in grades four through eight would also be subjected to national tests to measure their achievement.

Vouchers not included

Not included in the bill are school vouchers - an idea long supported by House Republicans, and championed at one time by the president. Bush's initial intention had been to grant students of poor schools portion of the federal monies meant for that school, to in turn be applied toward tuition at a private or charter school.

The bill lost a few supporters on the Republican side of the aisle because vouchers and some other provisions didn't make the cut.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Michigan, a member of the committee, was one of those who said he would not vote in favor of the conference report.

"Only part of the president's vision, the mandates and testing requirements are here, but are not balanced with parts that empower parents and free schools from bureaucracy," Hoekstra said.

And other members complained on the floor about some shortcomings they saw in the measure, including low levels of funding for school construction and for special education programs -- a subject many members said Thursday they would have to revisit next year.

But legislators genuinely were pleased with the completion of bill, especially after the House and Senate managed to bridge an $1.5 billion funding gap that held the bill in conference for some six months.

"I would not describe it as a miracle, but a near miracle that we were able to put such a wide-ranging bill together," said Rep. Patsy Mink, D-Hawaii.


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