Senate Approves Education Bill Requiring Tests

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly passed a landmark education bill that calls for a massive increase in federal spending, strict testing requirements for many of the nation's students and sanctions for schools that fail to make the grade.

The effort, approved on a 91-8 vote after a fractious final day of debate on the Senate floor, could mark the most significant change in the federal government's role in education in a generation. The wide margin of victory was held up by nearly all involved as a model for bipartisan cooperation.

The legislation would most dramatically affect low-income families, giving poor parents a greater range of educational choices while stopping short of allowing federal funds to be used to pay for private education. The use of such "vouchers" had been one of the cornerstones of President Bush's original education plan but faced fierce opposition on Capitol Hill, where even small pilot programs failed to get enough votes to pass in either chamber.

The version of the education bill that passed the Senate, like the one approved last month by the House, makes yearly testing in math and reading mandatory for students in third through eighth grades. It also takes the unprecedented step of allowing federal funds to be taken away from schools and used by parents under narrowly defined conditions and for a few specific purposes.

Bush, who has made education one of his administration's priorities, praised the bill's passage. He said the Senate's action, coupled with the earlier House decision, puts the country "close to a monumental achievement with bipartisan support."

"As a result of our efforts, we have wide agreement on the principles of education reform," Bush said in a statement from Europe.

The legislation passed despite a bitter fight on the floor over an amendment offered by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) to withhold federal funding from any public school that banned the Boy Scouts of America from meeting on school grounds because of the Scouts' exclusion of gay members and leaders.

The Helms amendment passed by a slim 51-49 vote, only to be countered by a competing amendment that was quickly offered by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and approved, after more contentious debate, by a vote of 52 to 47. Democrats hoped the Boxer measure would strip the enforcement authority from the Helms proposal.

In the end, Helms was one of six Republicans and two Democrats who voted against the legislation. Both California senators, Boxer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, voted for the measure. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) did not vote.

Federal spending represents a tiny sliver of the cost of education in this country, accounting for less than 10 cents of every dollar spent on public education coming from Washington. Much of that money is targeted to low-income students. The amount going to individual schools varies widely, depending largely on the number of low-income students enrolled.

Before the measure is sent to the White House for the president to sign, however, differences between the Senate bill and the far less costly House version must be resolved in conference.

And there may be a tough fight over spending during negotiations this summer. At an estimated annual cost of $33 billion for authorized programs, the Senate legislation costs far more than the $24-billion version passed by the Republican-controlled House or the $19.1 billion requested by the White House.

"This was a reform bill," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D), who has said he will insist on more money from the White House in negotiations. "We can't have reform without resources, and that will be the next step."

Jeffords' Key Role on Issue Acknowledged

The legislation was the first bill to come to a vote in the Senate since Democrats took control earlier this month. The historic changeover took place after Sen. James M. Jeffords, a moderate Republican from Vermont, defected the GOP to protest his party's conservative leadership.

Chief among Jeffords' numerous disagreements with the president and GOP leaders was the funding of special education--an issue addressed in the Senate's bill, which called for full funding of the 40% share of special education costs first promised by lawmakers in Washington more than 20 years ago.

After the vote, some of Jeffords' former allies acknowledged the key role he has played in shaping the education debate during his more than two decades in Washington.

A fellow New Englander, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), offered at a news conference after the vote that the bill was the result of "tripartisan" agreement, a comment greeted with knowing laughter from Jeffords and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.

House Republicans have already warned that they do not believe the money is there to meet the goals set out by the Senate action.

Still, leading Senate Republicans hailed the vote as a victory for Bush, noting that the effort contains much, although not all, of the provisions laid out by the president in his "no child left behind" campaign theme.

"This puts us much farther along that road of reducing initially and eventually eliminating that achievement gap," said Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

Education Secretary Rod Paige visited lawmakers on Capitol Hill soon after the vote, urging them to push forward with negotiations on the bill's final version. Paige, the former Houston school superintendent, earlier in the week had called for "summer school" for legislators if additional time was needed to get the bill to the president's desk before the start of the next school year.

"I would like to encourage the continuation of this momentum we have going now," he said Thursday. Paige, however, said he believed that Bush's call for a modest increase in the education budget was sufficient to pay for improving education nationwide. The federal government, he said, has for too long thrown money at the nation's educational problems without demanding results.

Indeed, accountability plays a key role in the bill passed Thursday.

Schools with low test scores would initially get more aid but be placed under tight deadlines to improve. Under the legislation, low-income students attending a school that failed to show adequate progress after two years would be allowed to transfer to another public school.

It would be left to individual states to determine educational standards.

Under both the Senate and House versions of the bill, a school would risk the loss of federal funds targeting low-income students if it failed to meet the standards for three years in a row. After that, the funds would be made available for parents to spend on either private tutoring or to pay the transportation costs for transferring their child to another school.

In part because of the repercussions from a school's possible failure, Senate Democrats won an amendment that would target new Title I funds--the federal program for low-income students--for areas most in need. If the provision makes it through the conference with the House, and is fully funded in the appropriations process, high-growth states such as California could be major beneficiaries.

The current distribution policy for Title I has produced startlingly inequitable results, Democrats said. In California, for example, one school in Beverly Hills with a 10% poverty rate gets $1,100 per low-income student, and another in Los Angeles with 100% enrollment in the federal school lunch program receives $270 per student.

"Federal education dollars should go where our nation's poor children are, and I am delighted that the Senate accepted that principle," Feinstein said after the bill's passage. "Unfortunately, over the past few years, California has lost more than $120 million in Title I funds because of a 'hold harmless' provision that keeps slow-growth states at the same funding level they received the previous year despite the decline in the number of children."

Measure Balances Demands of Both Parties

The bill, which neither side claimed as ideal, represents a balance between Republican demands for greater local flexibility in spending federal dollars and Democrats' insistence on more help for schools with many low-income students.

Proof of the bipartisan cooperation that went into the measure was evident in the opposition expressed by both sides outside Capitol Hill. Conservatives were upset that vouchers were kept out and said they believed the testing requirements didn't go far enough. Teachers unions, however, argued that the annual testing demands are counterproductive and federal oversight of testing is still needed.

Under the bill, all schools would get more discretion in how they use federal funds to improve student achievement. And, unlike the House version, in which Democrats blocked the proposal, the Senate passed a pilot program that would largely free participating schools from federal spending guidelines. The program, called Straight A's, would allow seven states and 25 school districts greater freedom in how they use federal aid if they agree to higher achievement standards.

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