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Lawmakers Resolve Key Education Issues

November 29, 2001|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Congressional negotiators have settled several thorny issues in education reform legislation, aides said Wednesday, strengthening the odds that a long-stalled bill will be sent to President Bush by year's end.

Senior Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate education committees have struck deals on testing, teacher quality, the definition of adequate yearly progress for low-performing schools, a timetable of potential sanctions to hold those schools accountable and standards for learning English for students who are not fluent in the language, according to top aides.

What has been agreed upon so far, if it becomes law, would be a milestone.

"This is the biggest overhaul of the federal role in elementary and secondary education in 25 years," said Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez).

The biggest remaining sticking point, Miller and others said, is the amount of federal funding to help school districts handle a mandate to teach children with disabilities. The Democratic-led Senate has proposed spending more than $170 billion over 10 years to help local educators, but the Republican-controlled House has balked.

Votes on that issue, which is far from being resolved, are expected Friday in a House-Senate conference committee. Miller said Bush would probably have to weigh in before a final version of the legislation could be sent to the House and Senate floors for approval.

Bush appears eager to move forward. A senior administration official said there was "no doubt" that the president will sign the final package. "I think the president will be pleased to see this bill on his desk," the official said.

Indeed, before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks disrupted his domestic agenda, Bush had consistently declared education reform one of his highest priorities. An overhaul of federal education programs was the first bill introduced this year in the House.

The broad goals of the education legislation were settled months ago. Students in grades three through eight nationwide would be tested for achievement in reading and mathematics. States would be required to set up new yardsticks for improvement for struggling schools. Those that fail to meet state-drafted benchmarks would be offered extra aid but would also, at some point, be forced to give parents the option to transfer their children to other public schools. Some parents would be able to obtain private tutoring for their children at federal expense. Some failing schools eventually would be forced to restructure.

But in education reform, details matter. Therein lies the significance of the agreements reached in recent days by the "Big Four" on congressional education issues: Miller; Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House education committee; Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee; and Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), ranking member of the committee.

The agreements are still subject to approval by a House-Senate conference committee and by the full Senate and House. Among the key points of consensus reached by the four top negotiators:

* States would be required to implement the annual reading and math tests no later than 2005-06. At least $370 million would be available in 2002 for test development, and more in subsequent years.

* States would be required to set ambitious targets for making students proficient in reading and math within 12 years. Gradual progress would be required from all students, including racial and ethnic minorities, those in poverty, those who are disabled and those with limited English.

* Schools that fail to make adequate progress for two straight years would be given funds for improvement and required to help parents send their children to another public school if they wish. The following year, if state targets still are not met, parents of the lowest-achieving students would be able to get tutoring help at federal expense. And in subsequent years, persistently underachieving schools would face progressively steeper sanctions, up to mandatory restructuring.

Times political writer Ronald Brownstein contributed to this story.

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