WASHINGTON — In a partial victory for President Bush's effort to introduce school vouchers, Senate and White House negotiators have agreed on a compromise education reform bill that would allow students in chronically failing schools to use federal funding for private tutoring.
Hammered out by top Senate Republicans, Democrats and administration officials, the bill would also let students in failing schools transfer to another public school, congressional aides said Friday.
The agreement falls short of Bush's hotly contested private school voucher initiative, which would have allowed students in poor-performing schools to receive $1,500 each in federal aid to attend other public or private schools.
Nevertheless, administration officials welcomed the compromise, which clears the way for a vote in late April or early May on what supporters called the most significant blueprint for education reform in 35 years.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Bush was "pleased with the action on Capitol Hill dealing with his priorities in improving education."
Lindsey Kozberg, a spokeswoman for Education Secretary Rod Paige, said the compromise is a sign of the "progress we are making toward real public school choice."
Under the pact, children in schools that fail to meet education benchmarks for three years in a row could use federal funds for before-school, after-school, weekend or summer tutoring programs run by for-profit businesses, local school districts or community-based organizations.
Senate Democrats stressed that the new program would not affect public school funding. They vehemently opposed Bush's private school voucher plan, warning it would undermine the public education system by siphoning off funds.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health and Education Committee, said federal help with private tutoring is "one piece of a larger reform effort. . . . It's one option to improve failing schools for children."
In addition to funding for tutoring, the Senate bill would give state and local school officials new leeway in setting classroom policy while holding them accountable for results.
The bill, slated for Senate debate the week of April 23, would also dedicate $5 billion over five years to help all children learn to read by the end of the third grade--a signature issue for Bush during the presidential campaign.
Republicans were still expected to offer Bush's private school voucher initiative as an amendment on the Senate floor. "We're going to keep pushing for it," said Kozberg, Paige's spokeswoman. But Democrats said they would have the votes to defeat it.
The last major sticking point in education negotiations between Senate Democrats and the White House is over funding. In his draft budget, Bush proposed increasing education spending in fiscal 2002 by $4.6 billion, or 11.5%, to $44.5 billion, the largest percentage increase of any department.
Democrats said billions of dollars more were needed to carry out the White House's classroom objectives and other education priorities--an argument Democrats hoped would blunt support in the Senate, divided 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, for Bush's sweeping tax cuts.
Senate Democrats said they hope Bush will revise his budget to include more funding for schools.