The House rejected a Republican plan for private school vouchers yesterday before overwhelmingly approving bipartisan legislation that could boost spending on the main program of federal aid to local schools.
The bipartisan bill, which passed 358 to 67 and is supported by the administration, would renew the Title I remedial program, which provides federal funds for disadvantaged students, for another five years.
While the GOP defeat on voucher amendments came as little surprise, Republican leaders were unexpectedly forced to retreat on another education bill, which would have permitted states to consolidate various federal aid programs into one education "block grant" that states could spend as they saw fit. That bill was scaled back to a limited pilot project after party moderates objected because federal help could be diverted from disadvantaged students. Last night, the compromise bill narrowly passed 213 to 208, in a vote mostly along party lines.
This is the first Republican-controlled Congress with an opportunity to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the Great Society legislation that firmly established a federal role in education. The House has taken the nontraditional approach of splitting the law into several separate pieces of legislation, including the two debated yesterday. House Republicans describe the unusual procedure as an effort to give greater scrutiny to the individual federal programs, but Democrats have derided it as a public relations strategy designed to exaggerate GOP education efforts.
Several studies have shown limited academic results from the Title I program that was reauthorized yesterday. The program, which is the centerpiece of the 1965 law, spent $7.7 billion this past year on 10 million students in nearly every school district in the country. The House bill would authorize annual funding of nearly $10 billion.
"Now, we are beginning to fix the programs," said Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman William F. Goodling (R-Pa.) after the bill passed.
Earlier in the day, House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) had tried to take the House in a more conservative direction, proposing to spend $100 million a year on vouchers that students in failing public schools could use to pay for tuition at private schools. Students would have been eligible to receive a voucher if a governor had declared their school an "academic disaster" or if they had been harmed by school violence.
But Democratic critics argued that vouchers would not help the larger number of students who would remain behind in troubled schools and would divert resources from public to private schools. Armey's amendment was defeated, 257 to 166, with 52 Republicans joining 204 Democrats and one independent in opposing vouchers.
An amendment proposed by Rep. Thomas E. Petri (R-Wis.) to experiment with vouchers in 10 states was also defeated, 271 to 153, with 66 Republicans crossing party lines.
Despite the rejection of the voucher amendments, the Title I legislation takes a limited step to broaden the choice of public schools available to disadvantaged students. Under the bill, those enrolled in low-performing schools--currently about 20 percent of Title I-supported schools--would be able to transfer to another public school within the same school district. Federal funding would not follow students who transfer, but districts could use Title I money to pay for their transportation.
Under another provision of the bill, parents of bilingual students would be given the right to approve the language in which their children receive instruction, a change made in response to some Hispanic parents whose children were channeled into Spanish bilingual classes despite being proficient in English.
The limited block grant bill approved yesterday, commonly called "Super Ed Flex," would give 10 states even more latitude in spending federal funds than a similar "Ed Flex" law that Congress passed with bipartisan support and President Clinton signed in April. The earlier law allowed waivers of federal rules, but did not permit funds from different programs to be combined and used for a single purpose as the new legislation would.
House Republicans had timed action on the education bills to coincide with wrangling with the White House over spending bills in an effort to blunt anticipated attacks from Clinton on education issues. GOP leaders hoped the party would come across as standing for a distinctive education policy, but instead its failure on vouchers and retreat to a pilot program on block grants sent mixed messages that left some conservative members fuming.
"This makes me boil, when we tell young children who can't read, write and add, 'Just be patient,' " said Rep. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio).
Unlike the House, the Senate plans to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in a single bill, probably next year. Sen. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has circulated draft legislation that differs significantly from the House bills. It proposes a new federal preschool program, for example, and lacks any measure comparable to the House bill's right to transfer.