`Radical' Education Bill OK'd -- Gorton's Amendment Would Send Money To Local Level
Seattle Times Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Sen. Slade Gorton yesterday persuaded the U.S. Senate to return a third of all federal education money to local states and school boards, a move that would eliminate dozens of programs designed to help the nation's neediest children but give local educators more money and more say over their schools.
Gorton's provision, which passed the Senate 51-49, was hailed by conservatives as a dramatic first step toward doing away with the federal Department of Education, an agency they have long contended is bloated, elitist and meddling.
But the Clinton administration immediately threatened a veto, saying Gorton had, in one fell swoop, managed to de-emphasize education, target poor people and erode the "bipartisan spirit" that has existed this year on education issues.
The proposal would have to be approved by the House before reaching President Clinton's desk.
Even Gorton, not known for being effusive, described his proposal as "brand new and radical." He expressed disbelief that a measure that strikes at the heart of federal control might have a chance of approval in Congress.
The amendment, which did not receive a public hearing, would not cut any education money. It would simply take about $11 billion in federal tax money earmarked for special K-12 programs and send it all directly to the states, effectively eliminating the federal programs but boosting the budgets of local school boards.
The states would be free to spend the money as they pleased, on anything from textbooks to teachers' salaries to services for disadvantaged children. The programs canceled would include some of the hallmark efforts of federal education policy established over the past three decades to help migrants, neglected and delinquent students, Indians, bilingual students and other pupils with special needs.
Also eliminated would be programs on technology in schools, violence and drug prevention, literacy training for parents, vocational and adult education, professional development for teachers, and Goals 2000, a favorite program of Clinton's that was created by President Bush to help states implement education reform.
Gorton touts local control
Gorton, R-Wash., said all these services can be accomplished better by local school officials without wasting so much money. He compared his new policy to what Congress did last year when it ended the federal guarantee of cash assistance to the poor and returned much of the decision-making about welfare to the states.
"The primary goal is to see to it that we allow the decisions about the way the money is spent to be made by the people who are actually spending it and actually providing the education," Gorton said.
"Maybe the men and women who are dedicated enough to run for positions on local school boards, maybe the teachers who are in the classroom every day, perhaps the principals and administrators there can use that $11 billion to provide more in the way of educational services than are being provided at the present time."
Senators on both sides seemed stunned the amendment passed, though it had been debated on and off for two days. Because it was attached as a rider to a spending bill, it did not attract much attention - only one senator, Sen. James Jeffords, R-Vt., spoke against it. Later in the day, several other opponents, including Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., vehemently denounced the measure, though by then it was too late because it already had been approved.
Kennedy said the federal role in education spending is tiny, only 5 percent of the $600 billion spent annually in the United States, and that much of it is devoted to ensuring that the poor and disadvantaged get equal access to educational opportunities.
Eliminating programs to help "special needs" children and hoping all local school districts will be able to fill the gap amount to taking a "meat-ax" approach to education reform, said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who once served on the Shoreline School Board.
"This amendment will assure that we increase the disparities between the `haves' and the `have-nots' in our nation's schools," Murray said.
Secretary of Education Richard Riley said Gorton had succeeded in directing money away from some of the president's most promising and popular initiatives, such as helping the charter-school movement grow, getting computers into every classroom and establishing voluntary national tests in reading and math.
"This is not what the American people want when it comes to the education of their children," Riley said in a prepared statement.
But conservatives in the Senate said it is precisely what the American people want: to have more control over how their taxes are spent in the schools. They contend many people resent the federal government, which is so distant from the local schools, dictating in any way how or what teachers should teach.
Many parents blame the federal government for forcing schools to teach topics other than the basics, such as bilingual education or behavioral lessons on self-esteem and anger management. The program called Goals 2000, in particular, has been a target of conservative activists since it was established in 1990. They fear it is an attempt to create a national school board and encourage more school health clinics that deal with family planning.
Supporters, including Clinton, say it is only a means to help local school districts remake their teaching methods and raise standards.
If nothing else, eliminating the role of the federal bureaucracy in administering many of the 200 programs could save about $1 billion that could be sent directly to classrooms, Gorton said.
The start of dismantling?
A conservative leader in the Senate, Republican Phil Gramm of Texas, said Gorton's amendment was a "defining moment" in education policy that could be just the start of a movement to dismantle the federal role entirely.
"The Gorton amendment says let us, in a very simple way, fundamentally begin to change the equation," Gramm said. "It is only the first step. If we give the money directly to the school system, then you have to ask, what do we need all these bureaucrats for?
"Perhaps next year we can go back and take the money we are spending on all the people who administer these programs and give that money to the school system and thereby greatly multiply our efforts."
Gorton's amendment was added to the $269 billion appropriations bill for Labor, Health and Human Services and Education. The Department of Education would receive about $31 billion in the measure. The House version of the same bill does not contain the Gorton amendment, and so it will be debated later this month and next after the two sides meet to hash out differences.
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