Bush's compromises dilute education bill, critics say

Money being promised might not be available

May 17, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush has seemed so willing to compromise with both liberal and conservative lawmakers to steer his education plan through Congress that critics say they fear he will end up with a bill that promises far more than it can deliver.

After weeks of debate, Senate action on its version of the bill has veered out of control of Republican leaders.

Democrats have diluted or eliminated most of the provisions designed to strengthen the accountability of individual public schools - including private school tuition vouchers - and have added so much more in spending that lawmakers say much of the money will never materialize.

"I'm not happy with it all," Majority Leader Trent Lott said of the Senate version of the bill. "I don't think that there's any amendment that any senator could offer providing for any level of spending that would not pass the Senate."

In the House, Republican leaders are to begin action today on an education bill that, like the Senate bill, drops Bush reform provisions that Democrats opposed. In addition, the House bill responds to conservatives' objections to national standardized tests by dropping such a requirement.

"That troubles me," said Rep. Tim Roemer, an Indiana Democrat who otherwise supports the bill. "I don't want such a big loophole that we can't measure one state against another."

Despite Bush's yielding to them on national testing, some House conservatives say he has traded away so much on school choice and state flexibility that they want him to veto it.

"The Bush bill has been completely gutted," complained Rep. Peter Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican.

"The president called for three elements: greater accountability through school choice, greater local flexibility and testing; all he's left with is testing," Hoekstra said, referring to annual tests to be administered at the state level.

"What's the point knowing where you are, if you can't do anything about it?"

But the White House is pressing on, undaunted.

"We are confident that we are on course to get a bill that the president can sign," said Margaret La Montagne, Bush's domestic policy adviser.

Such agreeable language - with no word about which provisions the White House would find unacceptable - is being read as a signal that Bush is willing to compromise on almost anything.

"It's increasingly apparent that Bush is prepared to accept whatever Congress is going to send him," said Andrew Rotherham, an adviser in the Clinton White House who is now education director for the Progressive Policy Institute.

The danger of such "lowest-common-denominator politics," Rotherham said, "is that they'll wind up with reforms that are more cosmetic than real."

Both versions of the bill do retain the core of Bush's proposal: a requirement that students in grades three through eight take annual tests, developed at the state level, in reading and math.

In a speech in January, Bush called such testing "the cornerstone of reform."

The results are intended to serve as a tool to assess the quality of individual schools and to determine how best to meet students' needs. Eventually, failing schools could be denied federal funds.

But neither version of the education bill would allow parents the ultimate option Bush proposed: a voucher to send children to a private school if tests revealed their public school was failing them.

Opposition to vouchers is strong among teachers unions and their allies in Congress - mostly Democrats - who say they would rob funds from the public school systems that need them most.

Instead of getting vouchers, parents could transfer their children to another public school if tests indicate progress has been inadequate. The legislation also provides for remedial help in tutoring, after-school services and summer school programs.

Conservatives unhappy about the lack of private school choice were further disappointed that both bills excluded Bush's proposal to offer states freedom from regulations about how to spend federal money if they could show significant progress in student achievement.

That proposal had been resisted by Democrats who fear that federal money would not be spent on the disadvantaged students who most need it.

Democrats complain, though, that there is hardly enough money offered in any fashion to improve schools. Federal money constitutes only 7 percent of public school funding.

Amendments by Senate Democrats - included a proposal by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland to provide $100 million over five years to establish 1,000 technology centers across the country - have more than quadrupled the bill's cost, to more than $53 billion.

The Democrats narrowly failed, however, in their effort this week to allocate up to $2.4 billion to hire new public school teachers to reduce class sizes. Republican leaders argued that this proposal ran contrary to the purpose of the bill by denying flexibility to districts to spend money however they see fit.

None of the money the Senate added has been included in the budget proposal that Congress approved last week. And with large tax cuts coming, there doesn't appear to be much room for it.

"Does anybody really think we're going to spend all this money?" Sen. Pete V. Domenici, the New Mexico Republican who is chairman of the Budget Committee, asked this week. "If they think so, they're dreaming."

Even so, the big winner in the education debate might be Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who secured numerous concessions from Bush in return for his crucial support and yet keeps asking for more.

"Their agreement doesn't stop Kennedy from coming to the Senate floor every day and saying there isn't enough money," observed Michael Franc, an analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation.

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