House, Senate Forge Final Agreement on K-12 Pact
Bill has ambitious ideas, but limited funding, critics say
After months of debate and lingering opposition among some experts, House and Senate negotiators forged a final agreement on a bill to improve the nation’s K-12 education pipeline through more testing as well as increased aid for disadvantaged schools.
Republicans and Democrats reached agreement on a plan to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the government’s main K-12 law that includes the massive Title I education aid program as well as support for teacher development, school safety and dozens of other issues. The blueprint contains many elements of the Bush administration’s original agenda, though it does not include the president’s early goal to promote school vouchers in public education.
President Bush was expected to sign the bill before the Christmas holiday.
But while lawmakers of both parties generally praised the agreement, some leading education groups did not. The bill, they say, has ambitious ideas but limited funding.
“Today’s action on the federal education bill is a tremendous disappointment,” says Bob Chase, National Education Association president. “While the bill sets out noble goals to raise student achievement and increase accountability, it fails to deliver the support required to help children achieve higher standards.”
NEA will not oppose the bill, he says, “but we cannot in good conscience support it.”
Chase cited a recent National Governors’ Association report showing that states face a $35 billion shortfall because of the current recession. “Given this bleak fiscal climate, these unfunded and underfunded mandates are irresponsible.”
But congressional leaders sought to point out the bill’s gains. “This agreement will bring much-needed reforms to a federal law that has lost its focus and never met its promise,” says Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
Democratic leaders, who often side with labor unions on education, also emphasized the bill’s positive aspects.
Democrats helped secure higher funding for K-12 programs, a renewed commitment to bilingual education and less emphasis on block grants than in the GOP’s initial plans, said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., senior Democrat on the House education panel.
“We also defeated a negative, conservative social agenda that some attempted to insert into this bill,” Miller says.
While the legislation primarily spans K-12 education, several sections would fund more partnerships among K-12 schools and colleges to promote math and science improvement and train teachers. Here is a detailed look at the bill’s major components:
• Testing: The bill requires each state to have an annual system to test students in reading and math from the third through eighth grades. The tests would measure entire schools as well as subgroups of students, including low-income youth and students of color. Long-range goals are to narrow the gap between affluent and poor students over a 12-year period.
• Teachers: The original bill, Miller said, would have required mandatory teacher testing. The new bill has more funds for teacher salaries and training and gives states considerable flexibility. States also would have to design services so that, within four years, schools would have only teachers certified in their subjects.
• Low-income schools: Struggling schools will get more financial help but could lose some of their autonomy over time if they fail to make significant progress. According to Miller, the 50 school districts with the highest percentage of poor students will get a 10 percent increase in Title I funding.
• Limited English students: Republicans originally favored English-only instructional reforms, but the final bill has more funds and a formula-driven program to reach those most in need of services.
• Accountability: In addition to testing, each school will receive an annual report card assessing progress in major areas.
• Safe schools: The final bill continues safe school and after-school grants as separate programs. Republicans originally wanted to combine the two programs into a larger block grant.
Perhaps the most controversial element of the bill was the future of special education funding, as Democrats failed to get Republican support to guarantee full funding of special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Back in the 1970s, Congress vowed to cover 40 percent of schools’ special education costs, but the federal government has never come close to approving that level of support.
Democrats, particularly in the Senate, wanted a commitment to full funding, but Republicans argued that Congress first must review and reform IDEA. Lawmakers are to review the special education law next year. According to Republicans, providing full funding would be a mistake without first reviewing the progress and structure of the law.
After much debate, Senate Democrats offered to fully fund IDEA in six years, pending reauthorization of the special education law next year. The plan, said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, would “lift the burden of special education off the backs of local governments and property taxpayers.” However, Republicans voted down the request.
The full House and Senate approved the measure, which now goes to President Bush. Approval of the legislation was expected to clear the way for passage of a 2002 education budget bill. Many lawmakers wanted to deter action on the spending bill to await final results of the K-12 education reform negotiations. As a result, many higher education programs were left with only temporary funds since the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year.
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