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Prospects for Education Reform Wane

Politics: Despite earlier enthusiasm, efforts to overhaul federal programs in elementary and secondary schools appear in jeopardy in Congress.


WASHINGTON — Last year, a wave of bipartisan enthusiasm for education reform led the House to overwhelmingly approve the strongest federal requirements ever that would raise academic standards in schools serving disadvantaged students.

But now, even as the two leading presidential candidates strive to be seen as reformers, efforts to overhaul federal programs in elementary and secondary schools appear in jeopardy in Congress.

As the Republican-controlled Senate on Monday began its most significant education debate of the year, lawmakers, lobbyists and government sources close to the issue said that prospects for major legislation that could win enactment in the final year of the Clinton administration are dimming, if not dying.

Eschewing the bipartisanship essential for compromise, most senators seem content to try to score election-year points on what has become a top voter concern. In addition, fierce partisan maneuvering on other hot-button issues such as gun control is threatening to derail the debate on education.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.)--two players critical for any compromise--have suggested that proposals to stop unchecked firearm sales at weekend gun shows could be linked to the education bill. That would be a nonstarter for the Senate GOP leadership.

Enacting any education reform is difficult under the best of circumstances. In March, House Republican leaders stymied a proposal to put more federal money into school construction. And the opening salvos on Monday in the Senate showed a wide gulf in priorities. The divisions are less about money--both sides want to increase funding for programs that now total more than $14 billion a year--than about how money is spent.

Republicans are calling for a minimal federal role in school affairs, a stronger state role and allowing some parents dissatisfied with their public schools to spend federal dollars on private tutoring. Democrats said that they would target money for training teachers, hiring teachers to reduce class size and expanding after-school enrichment programs.

"Will we really see a bill? At this point, we're not sure," said Reginald Felton, the chief federal lobbyist for the National School Boards Assn., which so far has endorsed none of the alternatives under debate in the Senate. "If the [Republican majority's] bill gets through on a partisan vote, we know it will be vetoed. And both sides can say: 'Hey, we tried.' "

At risk if the impasse continues is a bill passed by the House in October that won favorable reviews from the Clinton administration. The House bill, approved on a broad bipartisan vote of 358 to 67, would put teeth into efforts to improve a much-criticized program known as Title I that for more than three decades has been Washington's main answer to the broad challenges of schooling children in poverty.

Under the House bill, schools that lag on national and state standards--including many in the Los Angeles Unified School District and others throughout Southern California--would be required to send parents detailed report cards on test scores and other indicators of success. Parents would have to be told if their children are in schools that repeatedly fail to meet benchmark criteria or have a high number of unqualified teachers. The parents also would have the right--and a small amount of federal aid--to move their children to better public schools.

President Clinton, in a 1999 State of the Union speech that borrowed a page from conservative critics of the public school system, had called for school report cards and for shaking up failing schools by wielding the threat of a cutoff of federal aid. Soon afterward, Clinton signed a bill championed by the nation's governors and the GOP congressional leadership to grant states new flexibility in administering federal education programs. That modest new law was seen at the time as an important sign of bipartisan will to reform education.

Since then, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, and Vice President Al Gore, his presumptive Democratic opponent, have focused extensively on education. Both have sought to prod local schools to improve performance through carrot-and-stick measures that would leverage what Washington spends on schools. Federal funding amounts to 7 cents of every dollar spent nationwide on public schools.

While the two candidates are split on school vouchers--Bush would give some parents publicly funded vouchers to help pay for private school tuition, while Gore would not--their platforms are similar enough that enterprising senators might find some common ground. And the House bill passed last year, which would rewrite Title I for the first time in six years, would seem to provide a starting point.

But judging from Monday's opening Senate debate, reaching an accord will be difficult.

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