House Collapses Instead Of Standing Up On The Political Scene

March 05, 1994|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Imagine parents being told that their children were learning chemistry from teachers trained only in physical education. Or that taxpayers knew their money supported schools that assign English instructors to teach math, even if they have no skill for it?

Under the right circumstances, such news might send citizens storming in protest against their government. But at the U.S. Capitol last week, the opposite happened.

An effort to ensure that public school teachers be properly trained in the subjects they teach was crushed by a tidal wave of faxes, phone calls and overnight letters from which no member of the House of Representatives escaped. The torrent came from parents who teach their children at home and who were led to believe -- erroneously, many say -- that the teacher-certification requirement would apply to them.

The proposed amendment to a school-aid bill would have required school districts that receive federal money to guarantee that their teachers are certified in the subjects they are assigned to teach.

What was most remarkable about this exercise in instant high-tech democracy is that the merits of the issue of requiring competent teachers in public schools were never debated.

It would have been simple to correct the amendment to make sure no one could apply it to private or home schools. But Rep. William D. Ford, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, which had approved the amendment, gave up the entire teacher-certification provision.

Mr. Ford, a Michigan Democrat, decided "it wasn't worth fighting for," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. Other House leaders agreed. Nearly two weeks of jammed switchboards and overworked fax machines simply did them in. The leaders were convinced that nothing short of total capitulation would get it to stop.

When the roll was called on a motion to strip the offending language from the education bill, the vote was 424 to 1. Rep. George Miller, the California Democrat who had sponsored the amendment, stood alone.

Rep. Dick Armey, a Texas Republican who had been told of the Miller amendment's possible application to home-schoolers and had then sent out the initial alert, called the result "a perfect example of democracy in action in a modern world."

It is now possible, Mr. Armey said, for a well-organized, tightly FTC focused grass-roots movement -- aided in this case by radio talk-show hosts -- to be "more effective than high-priced lobbyists."

But even Mr. Armey acknowledged that the brush fire he touched off raged out of his control.

The message that went out to panicky home-schoolers was that they demand that their House representative vote for an "Armey amendment" to eliminate the presumed threat posed by Mr. Miller. When Mr. Ford, whose committee had originally approved the Miller amendment, agreed to correct the problem with a committee amendment, that wasn't deemed enough.

In the end, nearly everyone in the House voted for both a Ford amendment striking the teacher-certification provision and an Armey amendment reiterating Congress' intention that there be no federal control of home-schoolers.

"This is an unnecessary solution to a problem that does not exist," Mr. Ford said.

Mr. Miller, who had offered his proposal in response to teachers who said they were being forced to perform beyond their ability, found the experience alarming.

"What went on here in the last four or five days has nothing to do with the language in this bill," he told his colleagues. "It has to do with some other agenda of organizations that decided they were going to steam up a lot of parents. . . . The result will be that children will continue to be taught by teachers who do not have the ability nor the qualifications to teach those children. That is a tragic end to this story."

This was not the first recent instance in which a sudden populist outcry brought the Congress to its knees.

But this case was striking for the number of legislators and aides who privately rolled their eyes and conceded they were being craven, yet couldn't help themselves.

"I think we are starting to see some refining of a process that has been under way for some time," Mr. Miller said. "If every time there is a tidal wave of public outcry, we are going to respond without any chance for discussion or debate, that's not a very good way to make public policy."

Michael P. Farris, a nearly successful Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in Virginia last year who marshaled the home-schoolers, said Mr. Miller brought the trouble on himself by failing to take their concerns seriously.

Mr. Farris, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, said he had been alerted to the issue by Mr. Armey.

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