Democrats lose bid to hire thousands of school teachers

The Associated Press
Wednesday May 16, 2001

WASHINGTON — A Democratic proposal to finance the hiring of thousands of public school teachers went down to narrow defeat in the Senate as the administration and its Republican allies sought to assert control over debate on President Bush’s education bill. 

Tuesday’s vote was 50-48 against an amendment by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and marked the first time in several fitful weeks of debate that the Senate rejected a move to add spending to the legislation or to tighten federal controls over its use. 

Murray, a former school board member, said her amendment was designed to reduce class size in public schools nationwide. The head of the Democratic senatorial campaign committee, she also said Republicans “will find their opponents talking about this in the next election.” 

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican whose name will be on the ballot next year, voted against the proposal. “I want to give school districts local flexibility for spending the money,” she said. To set classroom size as the “only priority, when schools have different needs depending on where they are, strikes me as a mistake.” 

At the same time, conservatives and GOP leaders said they intend to seek removal of some earlier spending add-ons when it comes time to negotiate a House-Senate compromise. 

“I think it’s getting financially irresponsible, but hopefully we will get it cleaned up,” said Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the Senate GOP whip. 

The developments came as the Senate plodded through another day of debate over Bush’s top legislative priority. The measure would mandate annual state-run testing of all students in grades three through eight in math and reading. Schools where test scores fall short of standards would receive additional federal support to improve, and after three years, students would be allowed to use federal money for tutoring or transportation to different public schools. 

A companion measure is scheduled for a vote in the House this week, and sponsors have been scrambling to shore up the support of conservatives unhappy with changes voted in committee. 

“We need to do a better job” of promoting the legislation to the GOP rank and file, said White House education adviser Sandy Kress. The White House issued a formal statement of support, coupled with recommendations for changes to restore elements of the president’s program that were taken out in committee. 

As part of the effort to reassure conservatives, the House Education Committee has issued a steady stream of material in recent days, including a letter of support from the Home School Legal Defense Association, an organization that supports home schooling. 

In addition, though, the White House and GOP leaders are crafting amendments designed to placate conservatives, including one to restore Bush’s plan for private school vouchers for students in failing schools. For their part, some conservative and liberal lawmakers may offer an amendment to remove the annual testing provision from the bill. 

“Too many teachers are spending time on crowd control instead of spending time on curriculum,” said Murray as she advanced her amendment. She said it would allow continuation of former President Clinton’s proposal to hire 100,000 new teachers, rather than combine that program with one that pays for teacher training, as Bush favors. Her measure also would have called for an additional $2.4 billion above what is in the bill. 

The amendment failed on a party-line vote, as all 50 Republicans voting against it. All 48 votes in favor came from Democrats. 

Education consistently ranks high in importance with the public in polling, and the debate is unfolding in a changing political atmosphere. 

The issue has long favored Democrats in congressional and presidential elections, but recent polls have shown parity or even a slight GOP advantage. Bush stressed the issue heavily in his bid for the White House, and congressional Republicans abandoned their effort to abolish the Education Department. 

Murray’s amendment was in a series that Democrats have offered in an attempt to maneuver Republicans into voting against politically attractive measures as they labor to approve legislation in line with Bush’s request. Also expected to come to a vote is a proposal to increase money for school construction. 

In recent days, the Senate has voted to add hundreds of billions of dollars to the education bill, much of it targeted at helping disabled children or poor students. Some amendments included actual funding, and some specified that financing would depend on future voting. Some of the proposal were merely advisory. 

Some or most probably will be jettisoned in the attempt to forge a compromise between the House and Senate. 


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