Original story at: Washington Times
Schools bill sails through Senate
By Stephen Dinan
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
December 19, 2001
The Senate yesterday overwhelmingly approved and sent to the president a bipartisan education compromise bill that members of both parties called a landmark change in the federal government's role in education.
" No longer are we in Washington just going to ask how much are we spending and where is it going, " said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat. " Now we will ask how much are our children learning and where are they going. "
The bill passed 87-10, with six Democrats, three Republicans and one independent voting against it. It passed the House 381-41 last week, and President Bush said in a statement yesterday that he will sign the bill into law next year.
" These historic reforms will improve our public schools by creating an environment where every child can learn through real accountability, unprecedented flexibility for states and school districts, greater local control, more options for parents, and more funding for what works, " said the president, who had made the accountability provisions a key point in his campaign last year.
The bill authorizes a 20.3 percent increase, to $26.5 billion, in federal money to the states for education.
But the proposal also requires that states test students regularly to measure school performance, holding out the promise of more money for poorly performing schools.
Under the bill, states must test students in grades three through eight every year in reading and math and set a bar for progress of the poorest-performing student group or based on the poorest-performing fifth of schools in the state.
The proposal provides more money for schools that perform poorly. But if schools fail chronically they face being reconstituted, which means a total overhaul of curriculum or staff.
Schools will also have to tell parents whether their child's teacher is qualified to teach the subject matter, and will have to report on teacher qualifications and school performance each year.
Conservatives are particularly pleased with a new option the bill gives to parents whose students attend a chronically failing school. Those parents would be able to send their child to after-school tutoring, with the school system picking up at least part of the tab — anywhere from $300 to $1,000, depending on the school district.
Schools would have to approve the tutoring programs, but the bill allows for the services of private schools or professional tutors in addition to public schools.
Conservatives view this as a testing ground for private schools to prove themselves worthy of full vouchers in the future, but both sides see it as a stick to encourage failing schools to do better.
" With the companies aware of the fact that this money is available, and with parents worried about their kids getting a good education, you're going to see parents taking advantage of it, " said Jack Jennings, president of the Center of National Education Policy.
" Now the only way the school people can stop it is to do a good job themselves. "
The bill also would make school districts pay the transportation costs for parents who want to transfer their students from a failing public school to another public or charter school.
The bill also has provisions to let states spend federal money on student drug-testing, and includes protections for school prayer, for the Boy Scouts of America to meet in school buildings and for the military to recruit in schools.
Opponents of the bill argued that it will impose a slew of new tests on children without any assurance the tests will be used to improve education, and said the bill didn't provide states with enough money for special education.
Under a 1975 law, the federal government required schools to provide a certain level of education for disabled students and promised to pay for 40 percent of the cost, though it has always fallen short.
Over the last six years, Congress has increased the amount it pays from about 6 percent to 16 percent in this bill. But several Democrats wanted more.
" You can't realize the goal of leaving no child behind on a tin-cup budget. That's what this is. I vote no, " said Sen. Paul Wellstone, Minnesota Democrat.
Another dissenter was Sen. James M. Jeffords, Vermont independent, who was upset over the lack of special-education funds and cited that as one of his reasons for leaving the Republican Party earlier this year.
Both sides got some of what they wanted in the bill. Democrats strengthened the federal government's role, won more money, and kept a big voucher program out of the bill, while Republicans won testing and accountability provisions.
" It's kind of odd that Ted Kennedy and Judd Gregg are both saying they won, but I think they both did win, " said Amy Wilkins, who followed the legislation for Education Trust, an advocacy group in Washington, of the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate's education committee.
Both parties had to give something, too.
" Republicans have had to swallow the idea of stronger federal role in education. Democrats have had to swallow the role of more testing in education. And they've had to make accommodations. But I'll tell you, the country's better off because you don't do something in the long run unless you have bipartisan support for it, " Mr. Jennings said.