Congress's Tug of War Over School Savings Plan

Georgia's Senator Coverdell shepherds education bill amid Washington's wolves.

Sen. Paul Coverdell (R) of Georgia is not a quitter.

First elected to the Georgia Senate in 1970, he became minority leader four years later as one of five Republicans facing 51 Democrats. It took him four close elections - a primary, a runoff, the general election, and another runoff - to win his US Senate seat in 1992.

So it's not surprising that Senator Coverdell refused to bow to intense opposition - including filibusters and veto threats - to his education bill. When President Clinton insisted that it be removed from last year's balanced-budget bill, Coverdell retreated. But he was back on the offensive this year, backed by Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi and a half-dozen Democratic allies, to stare down a Democratic filibuster.

His tenacity has paid off: The Senate looked set yesterday to pass the Coverdell bill, which would expand tax-free education savings accounts to K-12 expenses, including private- and parochial-school tuition. The bill also raises the amount a parent, grandparent, or other sponsor could contribute from $500 to $2,000 a year. Currently, parents can spend from the accounts, created last year, only for post-secondary expenses.

"This heads the federal government into being a good partner in education as we head into the next century," Coverdell says.

The bill includes several Democratic-backed provisions: It would grant tax-free treatment to savings in 38 state prepaid-tuition programs and extend the tax exemption for some employer-provided education assistance. Other tax-relief provisions would allow private companies to help local authorities build new schools. In a move that outraged Democrats, Republicans Wednesday approved an amendment to allow states to get some federal money as block grants.

The Senate was considering other amendments at press time.

Beneficiaries of his bill

Coverdell cites estimates that 14 million families will use the accounts on behalf of 20 million children, 1 million students would benefit from the prepaid-tuition relief, 1 million workers would receive employer-provided aid, and $3 billion in tax-exempt "private-activity bonds" would be available to build schools.

Apart from his schoolmasterish looks, the pragmatic Coverdell seems at first an unlikely point man for an education debate. He has no children of his own and doesn't serve on the education committee. Before last year, his reputation was mainly as a staunch opponent of foreign drugs and an advocate for Georgia peanuts and Atlanta-based Coca-Cola.

Coverdell - whose manner is often compared to that of comedian Dana Carvey - says his interest in education was piqued several years ago when he visited a private school in Cleveland and was impressed with its efficiency and the curriculum. But that wasn't all.

"I began hearing and reading what was happening in our elementary schools and looking at the data," he says. He grew concerned about students headed for college "who couldn't read."

"I'm a big advocate of American freedom, what makes it work. It requires an educated mind. It's a core component. And when I saw that beginning to sink, I see it as a threat to the general stability of the country," says the senator, who is up for reelection this November.

All about Coverdell

Coverdell, who worked after college and the Army in his parents' Atlanta insurance business and later served as President Bush's Peace Corps director, advanced rapidly for a freshman. Two years after arriving in the upper chamber, he was elected a deputy whip.

He followed that in December 1996 by winning election as GOP conference secretary, making him the fourth-ranking member of the leadership. Senator Lott also named him chairman of the Senate Republican Education Task Force. He's involved in so many issues this term, Congressional Quarterly says, that some aides talk about an "all-Coverdell-all-the-time Congress."

Debate over the bill has centered around competing philosophies: Republicans generally want to limit the federal role in education, while Democrats want to increase federal aid to schools. Although a similar bill passed the House, and a few Senate Democrats back the Coverdell measure, the president threatens a veto.

Mr. Clinton says the proposal is "bad education policy and bad tax policy. It won't do anything to strengthen our schools and in fact would weaken public education by siphoning limited federal resources from public schools."

Clinton argues that the proposal is skewed toward the well-to-do. But Sen. Robert Torricelli (D) of New Jersey, a bill co-sponsor, replies that "75 percent of this money will be used for families earning $70,000 or less.

The bill's supporters concede the bill is only a start at solving the nation's education problem. "I view this as the beginning of a decade-long debate," Coverdell says. "We're gonna be at this for a long time."

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