Long Road to Reform
Monday, December 17, 2001; 12:00 AM
At 6:30 a.m. on Nov. 30, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) was awakened by a phone call from a staff member bringing bad news. Aides to the "Big Four" lawmakers negotiating the final version of President Bush's ambitious education bill had broken up in disagreement, and the House-Senate conference committee meeting scheduled for later that morning was in jeopardy.
By 8 a.m., Kennedy was in a small room deep inside the Capitol, along with Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and Reps. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and George Miller (D-Calif.). The four, along with White House aides Margaret Spellings and Sandy Kress, had met nine times since mid-September and thought they had worked out all the major issues on testing, accountability, teacher quality and financing that would, they hoped, make the federal government's biggest education program more effective in boosting the performance of America's schools.
That morning, they were hung up on a seemingly small point: whether religious and community groups should have to follow civil rights laws when hiring employees for after-school and summer educational programs.
Boehner, the chairman of the House-Senate conference and a chain-smoking, intense legislator who in the mid-'90s was a ringleader in the conservative drive to eliminate the Department of Education, was determined to pass a bill that, he acknowledged, would significantly increase the federal role in local schools.
When the four-way talks bogged down, Boehner asked the two Democrats to move to another office while he and Gregg, the self-described "conservative anchor" in the negotiations, worked on language. Ordering a one-hour postponement in the full conference, Boehner shuttled back and forth between the two rooms until a compromise was reached.
It almost fell apart again this past Wednesday night in a lawyers' quarrel, but it was patched together in time for the House to pass the conference report Thursday by a 381 to 41 vote. An equally lopsided result is expected in the Senate this week, setting up a pre-Christmas signing ceremony for a measure that has been at the top of Bush's first-year agenda, right along with tax cuts.