The Kennedy compromise

Conservatives might be screaming the loudest, but Democrats made their share of concessions in the House and Senate education bills.

Published May 21, 2001 8:00AM (EDT)

President Bush has been taking a shellacking from conservatives for giving up the farm to Democrats in House and Senate negotiations on his education reform bill.

Bush has been "making one concession after another to the status-quo left," in the words of Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot. And Republican members of the House agree.

When the House bill was voted out of the Education and Workforce Committee earlier this month, six Republicans -- Reps. Bob Schaffer of Colorado, Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, Tom Tancredo of Colorado, Mark Souder of Indiana, and both Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint of South Carolina -- voted against it.

Shortly thereafter, conservative groups like the Family Research Council; Dr. James Dobson and Focus on the Family; Concerned Women for America; Eagle Forum; and the Independent Women's Forum all officially declared their opposition to the House bill, which, along with its Senate counterpart, is scheduled to come up for a final vote by Thursday.

Their problems with the bill? The elimination of both the private school voucher proposal and the "Straight A's" provision, which would give states more flexibility in their use of federal education dollars.

A closer examination of the two bills being hammered out in Congress, however, reveals a number of concessions that Bush and his team have been able to exact from Democrats -- agreements on matters that just last year Democrats were fighting against tooth and nail. As of yet, Bush has not received much credit for getting liberal stalwarts like Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., to go along with legislative proposals Kennedy opposed just last May, but nonetheless these provisions are part of the package.

While not as easily understandable as Bush's immediate willingness to cave on private school vouchers -- the congressional votes for which simply do not exist, Bush education aides insist -- two key conservative reform measures that Kennedy and most Senate Democrats have historically opposed are now set to be added to the Senate bill.

An amendment to be introduced this week will include a pilot Straight A's plan, which would allow more flexibility for interested states or localities to use federal funds in exchange for an agreement with the federal government on meeting higher standards for achievement. It will also contain some form of "portability" that will allow students to take some federal funds with them if they are trying to flee a failing school.

But that hasn't been nearly enough for conservatives. A White House education advisor expresses a curious combination of pride and frustration at the realities of the package, and at the criticism coming from the conservative wing of the GOP.

"Just last year, you couldn't get Kennedy to sit down to even talk about these concepts," the advisor says. "Now he's signing off on them."

While GOP stalwarts come out in opposition to the plan, other Republican political operatives familiar with the bill and the process look warily at the complaining coming from the right. Some suggest that conservatives are merely staking out conservative ground to exact more in the amendment and the conference committee process. A senior GOP House aide disputes this, saying, "I think they're genuinely pissed off. We're going to pass the bill, but we're going to lose 30 to 40 Republicans" angry about the lack of private school vouchers and Straight A's in the House bill.

While the right has lost the voucher battle for now, there is plenty in both bills that indicates Democrats -- especially Senate Democrats -- have been willing to compromise, too.

"The whole political dynamic changed when Bush came into office and we got a 50-50 Senate," says Dan Gerstein, communications director for Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. Last May, when the $15 billion Elementary and Secondary Education Act came up for reauthorization, Lieberman tried and failed to broker a moderate compromise, but nothing was accomplished and ESEA languished for a year.

"This new reality has pushed both sides to the center," Gerstein says. "And, after last year, there was a premium on getting something done."

Historically, Democrats have never supported the Straight A's plan, which would allow states or local school boards to use their discretion on how to spend federal dollars and consolidate dozens of programs funded through ESEA. Republicans argue that the plan gives states and school districts more flexibility and fewer federal mandates. Democrats have argued that ESEA was created by President Johnson in 1965 to help bridge the gap in education funding between the poor and the affluent, and this flexibility -- not to mention eliminating programs set up specifically to help the poor -- could work against that purpose.

A year ago, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., called Straight A's a "reckless, giant step backward." When Republicans tried to broker a deal on ESEA with the New Democrat Coalition in spring 2000, Straight A's was actually one of the deal breakers. Not that the New Democrat bill went anywhere; it garnered only 13 votes total.

But the bill -- offered by Lieberman and Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and called the Three R's bill -- served in many ways as the foundation upon which the current Senate ESEA bill was built. More than half of the 60-odd different ESEA programs are being eliminated, and the other three dozen or so are being consolidated into five block grants.

And now Democrats in the Senate have agreed to a Straight A's pilot program. In the amendment, tentatively to be offered by Sen. Jim Jeffords, R-Vt., the pilot program will be launched in 25 school districts in seven states. The program will call for localities to enter into a contract with Education Secretary Rod Paige, formally declaring the specific, numerical achievement improvements they intend to make (instead of vague promises of "improvement") in exchange for more flexibility with what they can do with their federal dollars.

The compromise has plenty of people on the left angry as well. Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association teachers' union, refers to the Straight A's provision of the ESEA bill as "poorly constructed block grants" that represent "an unnecessary and dangerous diversion to school improvement."

"Kennedy made a bad deal," says Amy Wilkins, principal partner of the nonpartisan Education Trust. "Straight A's is a horrible deal for poor kids. That the Senate Democrats think that's OK is insane and absurd to us." The whole reason ESEA and Title I funds exist is because states "do such a poor job of targeting the needs of poor kids," Wilkins says, noting New York state in particular, where $2,794 more is spent on richer pupils than on poorer ones. "We don't think states should be given targeting authority. If they do and the funds follow the pattern of their other funds, it will be tilted a little more toward politically powerful and affluent school districts."

"I think that his agreeing to Straight A's was shocking," Wilkins says. "Kennedy's agreeing to this stands in direct contrast to his reputation as a champion and defender of poor kids."

Kennedy, not used to being accused by the left of selling out, has continually heard snipes coming at the bill he and the Bush administration have been hammering out, along with Sens. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., Bill Frist, R-Tenn., Lieberman and Bayh.

"There's more consolidation in this bill than what Senator Kennedy would have been comfortable with in years past," allows Kennedy press secretary Jim Manley. Kennedy worked to ensure that programs set up for "the most vulnerable -- migrant children, Native Americans" -- are intact, but yes, Kennedy has "made some compromises as well."

Of course, the White House education advisor defends Kennedy's deal. Giving localities control would enable, "for instance, a state like Arizona or city like Seattle to use Straight A's to attach federal funds directly to students instead of send it to school districts which then decide how to allocate the money. Plus, it encourages states or school districts to think outside the box ... states will have to target their money." Otherwise, the aide says, they will not meet the terms of their agreement with Paige. "The goal is to encourage states to think about ways to reach desired outcomes instead of focusing on inputs -- which is what bureaucrats are used to doing and are comfortable with."

Moreover, the advisor says, "Wilkins is arguing against the merits of the old Straight A's -- not the Kennedy version." Under the Kennedy version, the Title I monies for poor kids will remain directed as they always have been.

But Chase says that the whole concept of consolidating and block granting is flawed. "That money needs to be targeted on the federal level," he says.

Without question, Kennedy has made some big compromises on the bill, supporting legislation that last year he might have found heretical, that the NEA and others still do. He did so, Manley says, in exchange for some significant concessions from Bush, such as $300 billion in authorized funding -- up a tad from Bush's original proposal of $3 billion. But Wilkins, displaying some Hill savvy, points out that this is "authorized" funding, which is like a wish -- not "appropriated," which is a commitment. "And they haven't gotten any serious commitment from the White House on securing that funding," says Wilkins.

Kennedy may have requested the $300 billion, Chase says, but the money sure wasn't in Bush's budget resolution. In fact, he says, the resolution had $1 billion less than in Bush's original budget draft.

From Kennedy's perspective, the Education Trust, the NEA, as well as certain Democratic senators -- Jack Reed from Rhode Island, Hillary Clinton from New York -- have made comments slamming the education bill for various reasons, with Kennedy's willingness to compromise implicit among all of them. But he is trying to work out the best deal he can, considering the fact that for the first time since Eisenhower Democrats don't control the House, the Senate or the White House.

The arguments that he's been too willing to compromise have been buttressed by the fact that conservative Republican House members have been voicing preference for the "Kennedy Straight A's" program over the House version.

"We're getting it from all sides, no doubt about it," Manley says.

Not unexpectedly, one might observe. You might not expect Kennedy to support any form of school choice, for instance. Last May, Gregg introduced an amendment to ESEA that would make federal education funds portable. Gregg's portability amendment -- fiercely opposed by Democrats -- would have allowed students to take a few hundred dollars from failing public schools and channel them toward either other public schools or after-school tutoring programs.

"In effect, this would strip away the whole principle that we will try to help disadvantaged kids in disadvantaged areas," Kennedy's fellow Massachusetts Democrat, Sen. John Kerry, said about Gregg's amendment at the time.

This year, Kennedy and other Democrats are going along with an even bolder portability plan in many respects, one that requires states to allow students in chronically failing schools to take their Title I funds with them -- which can be roughly anywhere between $300 and $1,500, depending on the school -- and channel the money to either another public school or to a private tutor or after-school program.

But the activists are not sold. "Vouchers in any form have not passed the ultimate test of education reform -- improving student achievement," hammers the NEA's Chase.

Chase argues that even though Kennedy and his House counterpart, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., have been able to get more funding in their bills, not enough has been added for "safe, clean school buildings and smaller classes for our children."

Senate and House Democrats say that they're doing everything they can as the minority party, and they point out that both the new Straight A's and the new portability measures have been tweaked, fixed and improved from their incarnations last year.

"They may be tweaked," says the Bush education advisor, "but at the end of the day, no child will be left in a failing public school and some states will be given the freedom to prove to Washington that they can do more with federal funding when given the flexibility to do with the funds what they wish."

Of the two provisions Democrats signed off on last Thursday, the advisor says, "both move the ball forward for child-centered funding and for state and local autonomy. Both will make it easier to argue down the road for school choice and for more state and local autonomy. They are conservative victories."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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Education George W. Bush Joe Lieberman Ted Kennedy