WASHINGTON -- After months of contentious debate, the Senate approved legislation last night to set up tax-free savings accounts for education costs, thwart proposed national testing and fold a broad swath of federal education programs into block grants for states or localities.
Republican proponents proclaimed the bill a bold step toward improving education, perennially a top voter concern.
The savings accounts, they said, would encourage parental involvement in schools while helping families pay for private or public education. And they said block grants would shift policy-making from Washington to more responsive state and local governments.
"This is a revolutionary education bill," said Sen. Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexico Republican. "It's addressing the fundamental role of the federal government in our children's education."
Critics complained, however, that the tax-free savings accounts at best would fail to improve schools and at worst would favor wealthy parents and threaten public schools by defraying the cost of private school tuition.
Worse, they said, the block grants would weaken Washington's ability to target aid to disabled or impoverished children.
President Clinton and the Democrats favor alternative legislation hire 100,000 teachers and build and repair schools.
In the end, with a presidential veto all but certain, senators from both parties conceded that the debate had descended into partisan positioning for the coming elections.
Many said the bill approved last night, 56-43, would do far more to sharpen party messages for the fall political campaigns than to improve schools.
"This whole exercise has been one of futility," said Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, one of three Republicans who voted against the bill.
Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland were among the 40 Democrats who voted against the measure.
The House passed its version of the bill in October.
In advance of the fall elections, Republicans can remind their conservative base -- which is suspicious of federal involvement in schools -- that they voted to strip Washington of much of its influence on education.
Democrats can excoriate their opponents for blocking new programs to rebuild crumbling schools, reduce class size and fund after-school activities.
"There was too much of the old quest for partisan advantage," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, a moderate Democrat who tried and failed to bridge the gap between the parties.
The original legislation, drafted by Sen. Paul Coverdell, a Georgia Republican, would expand tax-preferred educational savings accounts established in last year's balanced-budget agreement.
For the first time, parents could withdraw money for private schools.
But the tax preference would be so limited that the accounts would shelter a mere $37 a year for private education and $7 for public education costs, according to estimates by the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation.
Even so, the bill's champions promoted it as a boon to parents seeking to save for their children's education.
"Great nations cannot long survive without strong, quality, drug-free schools," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. "That's what this bill would do."
But opponents portrayed the accounts as a sop to the rich that would begin the dismantling of the public education system. Clinton labeled the proposed accounts "bad education policy and bad tax policy."
The modest tax bill nearly garnered enough support to override a veto, potentially handing the president an embarrassing setback education, an issue he has made a top priority of his second term.
But during the past two days, Republicans freighted the bill with divisive amendments that cemented Democratic opposition.
Wednesday, the Senate adopted by one vote a measure that would be far more sweeping than the original tax proposal.
It would roll 24 federal education programs into $10.3 billion block grants, giving states the choice of accepting the money or passing it on to local school boards. Or states could reject the grants and accept the money from the federal programs.
The measure would effectively eliminate targeted programs that aid poor students, promote bilingual education, set national education goals, provide technology, train math and science teachers, develop anti-drug programs, establish after-school activities and aid the gifted and talented.
In their place, state or local governments could decide how to spend the money.
Sen. Slade Gorton, the Washington Republican who wrote the bill, hailed it as a way to shift money from federal bureaucrats to students.
But Democrats noted that states could use the money however they wished -- whether for education or road construction.