Congress tussles over how to spend education cash

President Clinton calls it the defining issue between Democrats and Republicans in this election season. Yesterday, he called a rally at the White House to focus attention on the need for school modernization and construction. He has given the GOP-controlled Congress until today to meet his demands for new education spending, or risk funding the government on a day-by-day basis until the issue is resolved.

It's an issue he's won before, in overtime budget slugfests with Congress. Mr. Clinton went into the 1995 government shutdown facing GOP demands for big cuts in education spending and came out with the largest increase ever. This year, the issue has special importance, because of the close presidential race.

Democratic nominee Al Gore is proposing a record $115 billion in new federal spending on education over 10 years and an additional $55 billion in related tax breaks.

Meanwhile, his GOP rival, George W. Bush, urges using federal dollars to leverage more accountability at the local level. A key to his credibility is his success in Texas in closing the achievement gap between white and African-American students. That success has been called into question, however, by a study released yesterday that indicates Texas's achievement gap has actually increased in recent years, as measured by national tests.

No. 1 issue: education

A Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll this week found that among both Bush and Gore supporters, education is the No. 1 issue driving their vote for the presidency. Polling by the leading teachers union signals that funding for school construction and smaller class size are especially important to voters in tightly contested congressional districts.

"The president has drawn a line in the sand, and now the Republican leadership has a choice: Do they support the president's education initiatives? Or do they go home [to campaign] with a sign on their backs saying they don't support hiring more teachers or modernizing schools," says Mary Elizabeth Teasley, a lobbyist for the National Education Association, which worked with the White House on its proposals.

House GOP leaders say the two sides are close to agreement on dollar amounts. Proposed spending on the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education bill is already at $109 billion. Clinton and Democratic lawmakers want to add another $4.9 billion, including $1.3 billion for school modernization and $1.75 billion to hire new teachers.

But Republicans are holding out for more local flexibility in how new federal funds are spent. Senate GOP leaders balk at targeting funds for school construction and class-size reduction.

"Republicans like to say we should leave no child behind," said Senate minority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota at a Democratic rally last week. "The truth is, under their tax cuts, they'll leave no tycoon behind."

Republicans counter that much of the delay on this issue was engineered by the White House. "The president insists on something new in education to establish his legacy, but he has not drafted the legislation or engaged Congress on the issues he says are so important until the 11th hour," says Rep. Bill Goodling (R) of Pennsylvania.

As Congress grapples with these issues, a new Rand report released yesterday is raising questions about the validity of Texas's educational gains. Researchers say the improvements shown on state tests do not carry over onto national tests, such as the National Assessment of Academic Progress (NAEP).

Texas miracle or myth?

While the study's authors say they don't know the exact cause of the difference, they speculate that many Texas schools are devoting a great deal of class time to preparing for the state test.

Both presidential campaigns were quick to respond to the study's conclusions. Gore staffers immediately called it a devastating blow for Governor Bush's record on education.

The Bush camp, in return, calls the study "completely dishonest, shabby work." Margaret LaMontagne, senior education adviser for Bush, says "the timing of this release is highly suspect."

The charge that Texas officials have been inflating test scores to aid Bush's political prospects has been circulating for years. In 1995, the Tax Research Association of Houston and Harris County began analyzing state data, including warnings that the tests had gotten too easy and that students were being excluded from taking them to raise scores.

But in the past, such charges had always been countered by evidence of gains on national tests, such as the NAEP. That's what makes the Rand study such political dynamite.

An earlier Rand team that lauded the "Texas miracle" in education insists that its assessment still stands. "When you compare test scores among students from comparable families, Texas is still among the top states," says David Grissmer, a senior researcher.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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