A bid to loosen strings on US aid to schools

Senate this week takes up an education-reform bill that gives statesgreater freedom in return for results.

Governors are gung-ho about it. The White House supports it. And it enjoys strong bipartisan backing in Congress.

A popular education-reform bill before the Senate this week should, by a simple equation, pass easily.

The Senate bill would allow states to grant school districts greater leeway in using billions of dollars in federal education funds each year. The goal: to eliminate red tape that hampers innovative local efforts to improve education. The House leadership has vowed to bring a similar measure to the floor by mid-March.

But those hoping for quick action may underestimate the political calculus on Capitol Hill, Congress-watchers say. With Republicans eager for an early legislative success, Democrats are raising the bar for the bill - despite its Democratic origins, they say.

"It's just such a political football right now that the content could get lost," says one lobbyist who favors the measure, speaking on condition of anonymity.

As a result, the bill marks an important early test of bipartisanship in post-impeachment Washington. "It'll be a good indication of where the rest of the year goes," says John Czwartacki, a spokesman for Senate majority leader Trent Lott.

The Education Flexibility Partnership Act, or so-called ed-flex bill, offers states greater freedom in return for results. Specifically, it would offer all 50 states the opportunity to waive regulations governing funding for six key federal programs, as long as the states uphold core federal goals such as civil rights and make progress on raising student achievement.

Already 12 states, most in the Midwest and West, have gained such flexibility under pilot programs since 1995. The results, though uneven, have been positive, according to a recent General Accounting Office (GAO) report.

Texas, for example, has aggressively granted waivers to its 1,044 school districts since 1996. The ability to waive federal regulations "is a valuable tool ... because one size doesn't fit all," says Chuck Russell, the Washington representative of the Texas Education Agency.

Local educators enjoy greater freedom to design and implement creative programs, contributing to significant gains in student performance statewide, Texas officials say.

"The performance gap is closing at campuses with ed-flex schoolwide program waivers at an even greater rate than in the state as a whole," Texas Education Agency coordinator Madeleine Draeger Manigold told a House hearing last week.

In the Dallas-area school district of Gunter, for example, a reading program introduced from kindergarten through eighth grade has boosted achievement by students at all levels, Ms. Manigold said.

Governors across the country, pointing to successful innovations in Texas and elsewhere, last week reiterated their support for the expansion of the waiver program. The GOP-led Congress has made the bipartisan ed-flex bill one of its first priorities.

"Moving federal education funding out of the front office and into the classroom is the kind of common-sense idea that both parties ought to be able to get behind," says Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon, who is sponsoring the bill with his Republican colleague Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee.

BUT Senate Democrats, who had supported the bill in committee, announced last week that they will now seek to attach several amendments to it - a move Republicans warn could bog down an otherwise "clean," ready-to-pass piece of legislation. Democrats maintain the bill needs tightened accountability requirements to ensure school districts will use taxpayer dollars to achieve better results for all children - including those in poor communities.

Democrats will offer "a number of amendments" aimed at strengthening accountability provisions, says Senate minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. "We know schools need help to make sure all children have opportunities to learn."

Most of the waivers granted in ed-flex states so far have involved broadening the use of Title I program funds to all students, according to the GAO report. Some educators worry the waivers may compromise the program's objectives. The largest federal program for public education, with $8.6 billion budgeted this year, Title I targets some 10 million disadvantaged students with the aim of narrowing the achievement gap.

Yet other Democratic amendments would pursue different education priorities. For example, Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington plans a class-size reduction amendment that would authorize for six more years an effort to help school districts hire 100,000 new teachers nationwide. It would build on a $1.2 billion, one-year appropriation bill Congress passed for that purpose last year.

Republicans, while willing to debate the bill's accountability language, say issues such as class size should be postponed until later this year with the reauthorization of Congress's major education bill - the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Many education groups hope ed-flex will pass. "It's a very ... forward-looking focus on empowering communities to look at their education systems and see how they can be improved," says Diane Shust of the National Education Association in Washington. "The best reforms bubble up from the local level."

Indeed, some experts believe the reforms should go further. They support a "super" ed-flex idea that would allow the nation's 15,000 school districts to mingle funds from most or all federal programs, with the sole requirement that they improve student achievement. "You will see a lot more benefits coming out of ed flex" under such a plan, says Nina Shokraii Rees of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.

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