WASHINGTON — In a triumph for President Bush, the Senate overwhelmingly passed groundbreaking education legislation Thursday that requires annual math and reading tests for millions of schoolchildren as part of an effort to improve the nation’s public schools.
The vote was 91-8, and set the stage for a summer of negotiations on a final compromise among the White House, the GOP-controlled House and the Senate, newly under Democratic management.
Final passage came after a bumpy, last-minute detour into the emotionally charged issue of the Boy Scouts and homosexuality.
On a vote of 51-49, the Senate approved a proposal by Jesse Helms, R-N.C., to strip federal funding from any school district that discriminates against the Scouts or similar groups that “prohibit the acceptance of homosexuals.” Many Democrats felt this provide protection for the group that others wouldn’t have. Opponents countered by winning swift approval of a proposal barring schools from denying access to any youth group, Boy Scouts included, on the basis of their views on sexual orientation. The clash over the Scouts provided a noisy conclusion to seven arduous weeks of debate on the issue atop Bush’s agenda – and a bill that senators in both parties agreed would mark a fundamental shift in the federal government’s role in education. “
Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said there wasn’t enough money. “We can’t have reform without resources and that’s the next step,” he said. In all, the Senate-passed measure called for roughly $15 billion more spending than Bush has proposed for next year alone. The companion House-passed measure calls for funding between the White House and Senate levels. The Senate measure is a bipartisan culmination of Bush’s campaign pledge to fix the nation’s public schools. It would require states to administer annual math and reading tests to students in grades three through eight. Schools with low test scores would receive additional aid, but if a school failed to show enough progress after two years, low-income students would be free to transfer to another public school. After three years, the same students would be permitted to use federal funds for tutoring or transportation to another public school.
All schools would receive some additional flexibility in their use of federal funds as part of the effort to improve. In addition, a small number of states and school districts would qualify for an experimental program with far fewer restrictions on the use of federal funds, part of an effort to see whether that could raise student performance.
The framework of the measure was fixed during weeks of negotiations involving the White House, Senate Republicans and Democrats led by Kennedy.
All sides gained concessions in some areas, and gave them in others. The bill contains far more money than many Republicans favor, for example, and lacks the type of expansive flexibility that many GOP senators wanted for school districts around the country. On the other hand, Kennedy agreed to the pilot program known as Straight A’s, to the discomfort of teacher unions who are traditional Democratic allies.
No compromise could be reached on the issue of vouchers — a proposal by Bush and the GOP for low-income children in failing public schools to use federal funds for private school tuition.
Republicans tried to insert the proposal into the measure but failed earlier in the week.
Passage of the bill came by an unexpectedly lopsided margin. Opponents included GOP Sens. Helms, Robert Bennett of Utah, John Kyl of Arizona, Don Nickles and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and George Voinovich of Ohio. Democrats Ernest Hollings of South Carolina and Russell Feingold of Wisconsin also voted against the measure. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, didn’t vote.
Helms injected last-minute controversy into the education debate with his amendment, which he said was triggered by last year’s Supreme Court ruling that upheld a national Boy Scouts policy banning gay members and leaders. The North Carolina Republican cited numerous examples in which local schools or school districts had excluded scouts from the use of facilities — evidence, he said, of discrimination.
To critics of the amendment, he said, “it bears out exactly what I was told was going on in the way of lining up of opposition on the other side to this amendment by the homosexual and lesbian leaders in this area.”
“Here is an organization that’s been next to God and country, mom and apple pie for as long as we can think of, and now it’s being pursued,” said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.
But Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said the Scouts were already treated like other groups, and added, “I believe this amendment is unnecessarily gratuitous. It is hurtful to a group of people. It divides us again in this country.”
In a remarkable moment, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., speaking, he noted, as a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, said that as drafted the amendment would have required schools to allow even that racist organization to use school facilities. At his request, the proposal was modified to prevent that, and he was one of eight Democrats who joined with 43 Republicans in voting for the Helms proposal.
Shortly after passage, Boxer succeeded in adding her own, different provision to the bill. It would prohibit discrimination against any youth group, including the Boy Scouts, on the basis of the organization’s “favorable or unfavorable position concerning sexual orientation.” Boxer said the amendment was intended to write into law the high court’s ruling in the Boy Scouts case.