Measure Moves to the White House
On Tuesday, December 18, the Senate passed massive education overhaul legislation (HR 1), which will now be sent to the President to be signed into law. The House adopted the conference report by an overwhelming vote of 381-41 on December 13. The passage of the conference report comes after months of contentious debate about the contents of the overhaul package. Most recently, the measure stalled in conference due to differences in special education funding.
The bill will reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, require all states to test students in grades three through eight in reading and math, and penalize schools that consistently fail to improve students’ test scores. Other key policy changes include a requirement that states improve test scores for all children up to a set proficiency level within 12 years.
On the controversial issues of school choice and program consolidation, legislators were also able to find some common ground. In the measure, parents of children in failing schools could send their children to a better performing public or charter school. This is in contrast to the President’s original proposal that would have provided parents with vouchers that could be used toward private school tuition. In an effort to give states more flexibility to meet their individual needs, new demonstration projects will be created in seven states allowing school districts to use federal funds for almost any educational pursuit they deem necessary as long as students’ test scores improve. The agreement will also streamline current education programs by reducing the number from 55 to 45.
The conference committee was unable to come to consensus on the critical issue of special education funding. On Thursday, December 6, Senate Conferee Tom Harkin (D-IA) offered a proposal to not only increase special education spending over the next ten years, but also to make special education funding mandatory beginning in fiscal year 2003. By guaranteeing at least a $2.5 billion increase for special education every year for six years, the proposal would have authorized the government to pay 40 percent of the cost of educating special needs students, as promised in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) passed in 1976. This plan was rejected by Republican conferees opposed to making special education an entitlement program. Many House Republicans believe the program sends too many children to special education classes unnecessarily, and that mandatory funding will curtail any chance of future program reforms.
The absence of these special education provisions from the conference report led some Senators to vote against the overhaul legislation. It is expected that Senate Democrats will continue to address the issue of special education funding when Congress reauthorizes the IDEA next year.
The approval of this legislation has not only provided the success of President Bush’s top domestic policy priority, but it has also allowed appropriators, who were waiting for the bill to provide direction on education spending, to complete their work on the Labor-HHS-Education spending bill (HR 3061). On Thursday, December 20, the Senate passed HR 3061, which was approved by the House on Wednesday, December 19. The measure includes $22 billion for school-related funding which is an increase of $3.4 billion over last year’s appropriation level. This figure, however, is $4.5 billion less than the authorization in the education overhaul bill. It is likely that the President will sign the education bill into law early next year.