The senate spent much of the past two weeks arguing over education and which party's vision best serves America's children.
The debate's backdrop was the "Educational Flexibility Partnership Act." That bill would extend to all 50 states an experimental program allowing states and schools more leeway in how they use federal education money. It streamlines paperwork and permits schools to shift funds in seven federal programs to areas of greater need - such as reading. The concept has wide bipartisan support, backing from teachers unions, all 50 state governors, and President Clinton.
One would expect such a bill to fly through the Senate. Majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi hoped to show that Congress was back in the business of legislating and to display GOP concern for education.
But Senate Democrats offered a series of amendments on such matters as further funding for Mr. Clinton's 100,000 teachers, drop-out prevention programs, and after-school activities. That set off dueling amendments that had to be untangled. The Senate passed the bill, 98 to 1, turning back Democrats' amendments. The House voted a similar measure the same day.
The bill is a good first step. But to bolster local schools, Congress should go further and pass a "super ed-flex" bill that would allow states even more flexibility in administering a larger number of federal education programs. That would further bolster state and local control of education, which is constitutionally sound. In return, states and districts must commit to timetables for academic improvement.
The president's proposal to pay for 100,000 teachers and reduce class sizes is little more than a symbolic gesture. Most districts need better teachers rather than more semi-prepared ones. It would be more helpful for Washington to allow schools to use federal funding in the manner most appropriate to a district's needs - which could include hiring more teachers where that is the prime need.
But before creating new education programs, Congress must help the states where they really need it: providing more funding for existing underfunded programs such as that for students with disabilities. Federal law requires massive spending to help such children. Yet Washington pays for only 10 percent of the program instead of the 40 percent it promised.
Finding funds for disabled students is a serious drain on state and local education budgets: It costs Pennsylvania alone $600 million. Last week's Supreme Court ruling that schools must pay for disabled students' in-school medical assistance only adds to the urgency.
The Senate "ed-flex" bill provides a marginal amount of additional funding. But some of it is siphoned from this year's "down payment" on Clinton's class-size proposal, causing veto threats from Democrats. But several more education proposals will come up in the next year or two, allowing Democrats to revisit their agenda.
In the end, federal education aid should enhance state and local control, not the Washington education bureaucracy. It should emphasize teacher quality before quantity. It should be goal-oriented, with periodic evaluations to ensure it's achieving its purpose. Legislators should flunk any bill that doesn't make the grade.