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Ed-Flex Bill Passes with Overwhelming Bipartisan Support

By Joan Crigger

Both the Senate and House overwhelmingly approved legislation on March 11 that would give states and local school districts greater flexibility in how they spend federal education funds.

The Ed-Flex bill passed both chambers by large bipartisan votes, 330 to 90 in the House and 98 to 1 in the Senate, although the votes for final passage did not reflect the bitter battles fought over the past two weeks in the Senate. The Education Flexibility Partnership Act (S.180) received only one dissenting vote in the Senate from Senator Paul Wellstone (MN), who argued that the measure would hurt poor children and fail to make schools more accountable for improving academic achievement . The Democrats voting against the measure (HR 800) in the House made a similar argument.

The legislation would expand to all states a waiver program that currently exists as a pilot in 12 states. States could apply for waivers to attempt new approaches to implementing the $8 billion a year Title I program for disadvantaged children, teachers training and a host of smaller programs if they are able to demonstrate how they would use the freedom to improve student achievement. To receive the waivers, the states would also have to agree to waive their own regulations. The law would not apply to civil rights , health and safety standards.

Prior to passage on March 11, the Senate voted, largely along party lines, to essentially kill Democratic amendments that would have implemented much of President Clinton’s education agenda. The Democratic amendments included:

  • a six-year, $11.4 billion authorization to hire 100,000 new school teachers (part of which was appropriated in the FY99 Omnibus Budget Agreement);
  • the $600 million authorization for the after school initiative, the 21st Century Learning Centers. (The competitive grant program is currently funded at $200 million.);
  • a $500 million effort to end social promotion, which has been widely utilized in the Chicago school system.
  • new aid for dropout prevention.

By a vote of 60-39, the Senate approved an amendment by Majority Leader Trent Lott (MS), that would rewrite provisions of the FY1999 Omnibus Budget Agreement appropriating $1.2 billion for the down payment on President Clinton’s 100,000 teachers. Senator Lott’s amendment would allow states to use the new teacher-hiring funds on special education for disabled students, which would effectively free up state and local funds to be spent as school districts choose. Most Republicans supported the teacher - hiring proposal last year.

Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (SD) and Senator Edward M. Kennedy (MA) vigorously opposed this amendment and said Democrats may seek to block the Ed-Flex bill and urge a veto by President Clinton, if the provision remains in the legislation after conference negotiations. The House did not vote on the issue.

Republicans promised that they would consider President Clinton’s education initiatives later this year as part of the debate on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

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