American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

Update on Education Policy (11-6-98)

105th Congress Wrap Up
On September 18, the House passed HR 3248, the Dollars for the Classroom Act, by a vote of 212 to 198. The bill seeks to consolidate 31 separate federal education programs, including the Eisenhower Professional Development Program, into a single block grant to the states. This would mean that states could choose to spend money on professional development, but they would not be required to do so. The Senate version of the bill, S. 1589, introduced by Senator Tim Hutchinson (R-AR), did not make it out of the Committee on Labor and Human Resources. The issue will most likely, however, come to play at the start of the 106th Congress, as they reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. More on HR 3248 and Senate bills below.

A partisan debate on the appropriate role for the federal government in education has evolved again this year with the stakes raised by the looming mid-term election. Senate Republican leaders declared education to be a top priority of the second session of the 105th Congress and unveiled a series of proposals that include increasing state and local control over federal education funds, tax breaks, support for charter schools, and a pilot program of vouchers for low-income students. Democrats oppose the voucher program, which they claim would cause damage to the country's system of public education, and resist Republican efforts to bundle federal aid into so-called "block grants'' to states. Instead, many Democrats support the initiatives outlined by President Clinton in his 1998 State of the Union address, including hiring 100,000 new teachers to reduce class size in elementary schools and a school construction tax cut to help communities modernize or build 5,000 schools.

The education reform bill (S. 1133) passed by the Senate in February epitomizes the issues at stake. The bill, which lets parents earn tax-free interest on savings for K-12 (private or public) education expenses, contains an amendment by Senator Slade Gorton (R-WA) to allow states to receive $10.3 billion in Department of Education funds as a block grant, rather than designated for specific programs.

The often-threatened Eisenhower Professional Development program would only be slightly affected by the bill. The amendment excludes the Eisenhower state grants program from the block grant but another amendment would make changes to the distribution of the Eisenhower state grant funds beginning in FY 2000. The bill, however, is not expected to become law: the President has vowed to veto the bill because he believes it would be detrimental to the public school system.

Senator Gordon also included a block grant provision in the Fiscal Year 1998 Labor, HHS, Education, and Related Agencies appropriations bill. After a lengthy House-Senate conference, however, conferees decided to adopt the House version and not include the block grant proposal. The Eisenhower Professional Development state grants program therefore did not lose its designation for teacher enhancement activities in science and math and was funded at $335 million for FY98. More information on the Fiscal Year 1999 Appropriations Process is available on the AGI website. Congress will be reauthorizing the Eisenhower Program in January 1999. The Department of Education has called on the scientific community to forward their recommendations on how to improve the effectiveness of the to be incorporation in DoEd's reauthorization proposal to Congress. More information on AGI's activities in support of the Eisenhower Program are available on this website.

In the House, a hearing on H.R. 3248, the "Dollars for the Classroom Act," provided insight on some of the partisan debate. The bill, which passed the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on June 24 by a party-line vote of 19-18, would aggregate the funding for 31 Department of Education programs into block grants to the states to be used for their educational priorities, rather than the purposes these federal programs were intended to address. A companion bill, (S.1589), introduced in the Senate by Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-AR), has been referred to the Committee on Labor and Human Resources. The following summary of the hearing is taken from FYI #83 by the American Institute of Physics:

Both chambers of Congress, concerned over the quality of public education, have passed non-binding resolutions - the House last October, the Senate on April 22 - urging that at least 90 percent of funds from certain Department of Education elementary and secondary education programs be used directly for classroom activities rather than being tied up in administration and other expenses. This same concern has prompted Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-PA) to introduce a bill with similar provisions in the House. The "Dollars for the Classroom Act," H.R. 3248, would aggregate the funding for 30 Education Department programs worth $2.7 billion into block grants to the states to be used for educational activities as they see fit, provided that 95 cents of every federal dollar reach the classroom. States would be allowed to use up to four percent of the funds for administrative purposes, and local school districts could use one percent, but none of the money would be spent for administration at the federal level. Block-granted programs under this bill would include the Eisenhower program for teacher professional development, primarily in science and math.

Pitts' legislation was the subject of vigorous discussion at a May 5 hearing of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. The disagreement, mostly along party lines, was framed as pitting state and local control against federal control of classroom instruction, even though no one disputed Rep. Rosa DeLauro's (D-CT) claim that federal programs make up only about seven percent of education funding. They are intended, she added, to supplement but not supplant state and local funds in targeting a limited number of specific national education objectives, such as promoting equal educational opportunities for poor and disabled children, support for learning technologies and curriculum development, and professional development of teachers.

Rep. Frank Riggs (R-CA), sitting in for Chairman Bill Goodling (R-PA), declared that "trying to federalize or nationalize education flies in the face of a tradition of localizing control." Added Pitts, "I know that my children's teachers knew better how to meet their individual educational needs than the Secretary of Education in Washington." Committee Democrats, however, said the legislation would result in a shift away from national education priorities, a loss of accountability to Congress, and "significant redistribution of federal education funds." According to Rep. John Tierney (D-MA), the current federal programs evolved over time because the states were unable or unwilling to address certain needs. Others insisted that it was more efficient for some efforts to be developed once and disseminated to local school districts rather than requiring each district to separately "reinvent the wheel." Even Pitts agreed that "perhaps some things need to be centralized."

All the witnesses on the next panel were professional educators and school administrators, but not all agreed upon the legislation. Several gave eloquent testimony about the difficulties they experience in getting the tools they want for classroom instruction, although not all differentiated between federal, state, and local levels of bureaucracy. Linda Schrenko, State Superintendent of Schools in Georgia, described conflicting federal requirements, and Florida Education Commissioner Frank Brogan complained that "in practice, most federal education programs typify the misguided, one size fits all command and control approach that we in the states are abandoning." But Missouri Commissioner of Education Robert Bartman said, "The question before you now is whether the bill...will genuinely add effectiveness in the use of federal programs. Unfortunately, the answer is no.'" Bartman stated that although "education is the basic responsibility of state and local government...federal funds for education have specific national purposes." He urged committee members to reexamine "the assumption...that increasing local district decision making in the use of federal funds will better direct federal funds toward classroom instruction."

Leaders of 14 other educational organizations submitted a letter to committee chairman Goodling which opposed the legislation, claiming that it "would undo thirty years of strong bipartisan congressional support for vital federal education programs." (Under block granting, states could, if they wished, reallocate money previously targeted to specific programs.) The letter warns that provisions in the bill "could threaten programs such as professional development, which lead to improved student learning and achievement, but do not take place in the classroom." "In closing," the letter says, "we must state there is no need for the massive and arbitrary overhaul of federal education programs that is proposed in this bill."

Although not present at the hearing, Education Secretary Richard Riley has denounced Pitts' bill, quoting from a 1998 Department of Education report which found that, for the department's nine largest elementary and secondary programs, 98 percent of spending is used not for administrative purposes, but reaches classrooms or service providers at the local level. "It is important to keep in mind," the report also notes, "that funds that are used for activities and services other than instruction...are not necessarily funds that are wasted' by the educational bureaucracy.... While spending federal and other education funds on administration does not guarantee effective leadership, neither does it mean that these funds are being diverted from activities that improve the quality and effectiveness of education for American students."

Recognizing the need for adaptability at the state level, the Clinton Administration plans to introduce legislation to expand its Educational Flexibility (Ed-Flex) Demonstration program. This program allows states to waive federal requirements for some education programs, including the Eisenhower program, as long as the states provide evidence that their methods will achieve the same ends.

The House and Senate resolutions urging that more federal funding reach classrooms are part of H.R. 2646, a bill to authorize tax-free savings accounts for education expenses. As resolutions, they do not have the force of law. In coming to agreement on H.R. 2646, House and Senate conferees dropped a proposal to block grant a number of federal education programs in order to placate Democrats. The block grant proposal in this bill did not include the Eisenhower program. The bill was vetoed by the President on July 21,1998.

Sources: Triangle Coalition, Washington Post, American Institute of Physics, NSTA

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Contributed by Kasey Shewey White, AGI Government Affairs.
Last updated November 6, 1998

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