Partisan rancor shapes debate on education reform

$15 billion bill to help poor students could fail


WASHINGTON -- Nothing enraptures lawmakers in an election year like a prolonged discussion about the needs of schoolchildren, an issue that ranks sky-high in importance for voters.

Last week, the Senate delved into the year's most important education bill, which would provide nearly $15 billion, most of it for impoverished students. Democrats fashioned a "war room" with a chalkboard, school desks and computers, where senators conducted online chats about education. Republicans countered with charts and news conferences inside and outside the Capitol.

But behind all the razzle-dazzle lies one startling possibility: This could be the first time in 35 years that an education bill so bogs down over partisan differences that it is vetoed by a president, if it does not get yanked from the Senate floor altogether.

"I've never seen things so contentious," said Christopher Cross, a former senior Republican aide in the House who is president of the nonprofit Council for Basic Education. "And I've never seen them take so long to enact a piece of education legislation. We are now well into the second year, and it looks as if they won't get anything enacted."

Instead of trying to write bipartisan legislation, Republicans and Democrats have seized the debate to showcase their opposing remedies for ailing schools. That Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush of Texas have turned education into a signature issue has only served to infuse this year's Senate debate with partisan rancor.

Fuming Democrats say when they were in charge, they never bungled the education bill, a measure revising and extending federal school programs that comes up every six years. They accuse Republicans of trying to jam through proposals that would devastate low-income schools.

"The Democrats never made this a partisan issue," said Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who is the Senate dean on education issues. "It's inexcusable."

Republicans reply that Democrats want to thwart the bill so they can label Republicans anti-education on the campaign stump and hold their advantage with voters on the issue.

They say Democrats are beholden to the teachers' unions and so entrenched in the status quo that they do not want to try anything new.

"We have functioned for 35 years under a system developed by Democrats in Congress," said Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. "And we've had 35 years of kids who haven't been able to read or write."

If the bill founders this year, the consequences would not be catastrophic, which is one reason the Senate does not feel compelled to compromise.

The Department of Education, and the local schools, would continue to receive their $14 billion without a change in policy.

But the wrangling over the bill illustrates how far apart the two parties stand in addressing the frustrations of parents and demonstrates how deeply politicized the question of education has become on Capitol Hill.

"In a way, you have both playing to the extremes of their parties," said Amy Wilkins, the principal partner for the Education Trust, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that focuses on poor children. "Are these guys going to grow up or are they going to continue to posture?"

President Clinton is likely to veto the bill if Republicans stay wedded to several of their proposals.

One would send billions of dollars directly to the states through block grants, giving governors leeway over how to spend the money.

Democrats say the states need to be held responsible for how they spend their money.

Republicans maintain that their bill would tie the money to improved academic performance.

"There is virtually no accountability on the Republican side with the blank-check approach they use in their block grants," said Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the minority leader.

A second component would permit some disadvantaged students to switch public schools and take their federal dollars with them, a move Republicans said would prompt underachieving schools to shape up. Democrats argue that the measure would drain money away from the schools that need it most.

What's needed, Democrats say, is more money to spend on more teachers, to fix decrepit school buildings and to help poor children.

This remedy, which originated with Clinton, is widely supported by the teachers' unions. The legislation and the debate crystallize the fundamental differences between the two parties.

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