CHN: Conferees Try to Wrap up Education Overhaul Bill

Measure Stalled Over Special Education Funding Proposal
A House-Senate conference committee is still working on massive education overhaul legislation (HR 1), which has stalled due to conflict over special education funding. Although the debate over this primary issue is still ongoing, conferees have been able to come to agreement on most other priority issues included in the bill.

On Wednesday, November 28, key negotiators announced new agreements on previously contested issues in the education bill. The package would 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 areas of agreement include a requirement that states improve test scores for all children up to a set proficiency level within 12 years. This includes testing for minority, disabled, low-income, and limited-English speaking children.

On the controversial issues of school choice and program consolidation, the conferees were also able to find some common ground. In the conference plan, parents of children in failing schools could send their children to a better performing public or charter school. In an effort to give states more flexibility to meet their individual needs, new demonstration projects will be created in seven states allowing those school districts to use federal funds for almost any educational pursuit they deem necessary as long as student’s test scores improve. The agreement will also streamline current education programs by reducing the number from 55 to 45.

The conference committee must now focus on the critical issue of special education funding. On Thursday, December 6, Senate Conferee Tom Harkin (D-IA) offered a proposal not only to increase special education spending over the next ten years, but also to make special education funding mandatory beginning in fiscal year 2003. Senate Democrats feel the switch to mandatory funding would free up discretionary funds that states could then use to meet some of the new testing requirements and education reforms contained in the bill.

The Harkin plan is a revision of an earlier proposal rejected in the House that would have immediately implemented mandatory special education funding. Many Republicans oppose making special education an entitlement because they believe the program sends too many children to special education classes unnecessarily, and that mandatory funding will curtail any chance of future program reforms. In the new Harkin plan, funding increases will not take place until Congress reauthorizes the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) next year, or passes the fiscal 2003 Labor-HHS-Education appropriations, which ever comes first. This would give legislators time to address Republican concerns and make program improvements before spending is increased and made mandatory.

Although the Harkin plan allows time for Congress to contemplate special education reforms, the measure is not likely to gain much Republican support. By guaranteeing at least a $2.5 billion increase for special education every year for six years, the proposal authorizes the government to pay 40 percent of the cost of educating special needs students, as promised in the IDEA passed in 1976. The total cost of this proposal is estimated at $172 billion over 10 years, which is considered unacceptably high by many Republicans.

The dispute over special education funding has slowed progress on the education overhaul bill, and it is unclear whether the measure will pass before Congress adjourns for the year. Democrats are pushing for a conference committee vote on special education funding next week, while Conference Committee Chair John Boehner (R-OH) has dismissed the Democratic proposal and would like to see passage of the entire education bill when the committee meets on December 11.

The continuation of the contentious debate has not only stalled the passage of President Bush’s top domestic policy priority, but it has created conflict with appropriators trying to finalize the Labor-HHS-Education spending bill for fiscal year 2002. The passage of the education overhaul bill is needed so appropriators can quickly allocate funding for proposed policy changes. If the education overhaul bill is not completed in this session of Congress, Labor-HHS-Education conferees face a difficult decision on how to finish their work on the appropriations bill. Appropriators could use calculations from past appropriations, or could use new information based on parts of the education bill the conferees have agreed upon. Both conference committees would like to finalize their education work by December 21.

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