Education plan recieves bipartisian support

The Associated Press
Thursday May 10, 2001

WASHINGTON — President Bush’s high-priority legislation to improve public schools sailed through a House committee Wednesday as Republicans and Democrats alike backed a plan that includes annual testing for millions of elementary and junior high school students. 

The vote by the Education Committee was 41-7, and set the stage for a debate as early as next week in the full House. 

“This is the beginning of a process, not the end of a process,” said GOP Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the committee chairman. And even as the committee vote was announced, the White House and House GOP leaders pledged to seek changes sought by disgruntled conservatives. 

Even so, the vote marked a clear triumph for the White House, which has sought bipartisan backing for the legislation atop the president’s agenda. 

“The bill we approved today is a good bill,” said Rep. George Miller of California, the senior Democrat on the committee. “It represents significant agreement between Democrats and Republicans to improve education for all children in our country regardless of their economic, social or racial background.” 

Boehner said the measure would “empower parents and improve education for every child in America. It’s an unmistakable signal that after three and a half decades of increasing education spending, Washington is finally beginning to demand some results for our children.” 

The measure would require states to conduct annual reading and math tests for all public school students in grades 3-8. Students in schools that failed to show significant improvement would become eligible to use federal funds for private tutoring or transportation to another public school. Failing schools would receive additional federal aid to help them improve. 

In addition, the bill would grant local school districts flexibility in their use of federal funds, a provision that supporters say would enable local officials to target money to their greatest needs – teacher training or technology, for example. 

The measure no longer contains some of the provisions Bush initially proposed, though, including one to allow federal funds to be used for private school tuition in the case of students in failing schools. 

And despite a last-minute attempt by the White House and GOP leaders to ease the concerns of the bill’s critics, six of the seven votes against the measure were cast by conservative Republicans. 

“I think it’s a sad day when Republicans pass a bill that’s to the left of Ted Kennedy,” said Rep. Bob Schaffer, R-Colo., referring to the liberal Democratic senator from Massachusetts. Bush said the bill contained “monumental reforms,” and called the vote “a first step toward reforming America’s education system and making sure no child is left behind.” 

Education Secretary Rod Paige issued a statement saying the bill “reflects each of the four pillars of President Bush’s education reform plan – accountability, flexibility and local control, research-based reform and expanded parental options.” 

The committee debate was delayed for two hours, in part so Speaker Dennis Hastert and other Republican leaders could meet with committee opponents of the measure. 

Several officials said the leaders and White House chief of staff Andy Card, who participated via telephone conference call, pledged to support major changes when the bill reaches the House floor. These include an amendment to restore the president’s private school voucher programs, as well as greater flexibility for some school districts and states. Ironically, a companion bill in the Senate, which Kennedy and Republicans agreed to, includes flexibility language that the House conservatives like. 

The mail elements of the House bill itself was negotiated several weeks ago by Boehner, Miller and a small group of lawmakers in both parties, with White House participation. 

The committee met last week and after lawmakers quickly voted against private school vouchers and in favor of annual testing, the way seemed clear for passage. 

Conservative leaders and organizations, James Dobson, for example, and the National Association of Christian Teachers, registered their objections, however, as did a small but vocal group of committee Republicans led by Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., and Schaffer. 

“At the end of the day, we are left with federally mandated testing with a federal audit, new reading, math and science programs and a 22 percent increase in spending in the first year,” said a paper circulated by conservative Republican lawmakers. 

The White House weighed in earlier in the week, issuing a set of “talking points” to all GOP lawmakers that made clear the administration supported the bill, and detailing several provisions that the president had won. 

Bush called Miller on Tuesday, and the Californian said in an interview the president “wanted to know what we could do to get this bill passed.” Miller said he told the president “you have to enforce the agreement we have.” 

No date has yet been set for the measure to come to the House floor, but officials said during the day they hoped for debate as soon as next week. 

The Senate has been debating its version of the bill fitfully for more than a week. There, as in the House, conservatives have been growing restless with the results, particularly as Democrats advance a series of amendments to add spending.