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House Passes Bipartisan Education Bill

On May 23, with overwhelming bipartisan support, the House approved, 384-45, education reform legislation (H.R. 1) that would renew the majority of federal education programs for the next five years. In the end, more Democrats voted for the bill than Republicans, with conservatives complaining that too many concessions had been made to garner support from the Democrats.

A partial blueprint of the President’s education plan, the bill would require annual math and reading tests for students in elementary and middle school and would give local school districts flexibility in using federal dollars while holding them accountable for improved student achievement.

The Leave No Child Behind Act would reauthorize the programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which is geared toward helping lower-income, at-risk students. Under the House-passed legislation, children in failing schools could transfer to other public schools and use federal dollars to pay for private tutors, after-school programs, or summer camp. Funding for literacy programs would be tripled, from the current $300 million to $900 in 2002, and $5 billion would be authorized over the next five years for reading programs for children in K-3 .

During floor debate, Rep. Marge Roukema (R-NJ) said that the bill “is the right approach” and that it strikes “a balance between State and Federal responsibility.”

However, Rep. Lynn Rivers (D-MI) called the legislation “a huge Federal intrusion into the jurisdiction of State legislatures and local school boards,” adding that, “What we have before us is a poll-driven illusion of reform through standardized testing” and an “unfunded Federal mandate.”

Over a two-day period, the House considered numerous amendments, but the final bill looks very similar to the one approved by the House Education and the Workforce Committee on May 17 (see The Source, 5/18/01, p. 5)

A coalition of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats tried to eliminate the mandatory testing provision of the bill, the cornerstone of the President’s education proposal. Offered by Reps. Peter Hoekstra (R-MI) and Barney Frank (D-MA), the amendment failed, 173-255.

Two amendments, offered by Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX) and supported by the President, would have allowed federal vouchers to be used for private or parochial schools. The first amendment, which would have provided federal stipends of up to $1,500 for poor children in failing schools to attend private or parochial schools, was rejected, 155-273, with 68 Republicans joining 204 Democrats. The second amendment would have established five school choice demonstration projects. That proposal failed, 186-241.

“We spend a lot of money on our public schools, and unfortunately, the ones that seem to be failing the most are the ones on which we spend the most dollars,” argued Rep. Melissa Hart (R-PA) in support of the voucher amendments. “We would actually save the taxpayer’s money and save the children if we would direct a small portion of that money towards a school voucher,” she said. Rep. Sue Myrick (R-NC) agreed, “This is a win-win situation for all children, but especially poor children who do not have the means to switch to better schools as some parents do today.” She added, “While choice gives parents the ability to choose where their children go to school, it also gives failing schools the incentive to improve.”

Rep. Patsy Mink (D-HI) called the voucher proposals “a cop-out” and “a surrender.” She said, “We ought to be saying we are committed, as the President has said, so no child will be left behind in the public school system. Keep them there. Improve these failing schools. Add the resources so that every child can have real opportunity in America.” Rep. Marge Roukema (R-NJ) asked, “How can we in good conscience select a few people from the failing schools to receive vouchers and leave the rest of the children behind?” She said that, if the amendment passed, “I am very confident that there would be court cases denying this because of discrimination and the limitations on the voucher system.”

An amendment offered by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-CA) that would have reduced the authorized funding levels in the bill from $22.8 billion for FY 2002 to $20.5 billion in FY 2002 was also rejected, 101-326.

Reps. Patrick Tiberi (R-OH) and Michael Castle (R-DE) offered an amendment that would give some school districts greater flexibility on how to use their federal funds under a pilot program. Their proposal, which would allow up to two school districts in 100 school districts to spend federal education dollars without strings attached, was adopted, 217-209.

“We’re not all going to be happy. But I think this is a very good beginning for the House of Representatives as a statement of where we should be on education,” said Rep. George Miller (D-CA), Ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

The Senate postponed action on education reform legislation (S. 1) to allow for consideration of a tax reconciliation package and will continue work on the education bill after the Memorial Day recess.

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