- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 12, 2001

House and Senate negotiators agreed yesterday to a compromise education bill that redefines the federal role in education, sends more money to the states and for the first time requires accountability of student performance in the classroom.
The bill, which authorizes $26.5 billion in fiscal 2002 for education, was approved by voice vote in the conference committee, and now goes back to the floors of both chambers for approval before going to President Bush for his signature.
The bill requires annual testing of students in grades three through eight to ensure that schools are meeting educational standards. The schools also would produce report cards on the results of the tests so parents can measure how well the changes are working.
"For the first time ever, we're saying if a fifth-grader can't read, the school he attends must do something about it, or the federal government will do something about it," said Rep. Robert E. Andrews, New Jersey Democrat.
Democrats succeeded in keeping school vouchers out of the bill, which the president had called for but did not have enough support in Congress.
Republicans managed to achieve some of their goals, including provisions that require students to show proficiency in English within three years of starting school in the country.
The bill also creates a five-year, $975 million program to encourage reading at an early age, targets money specifically to help schools in 50 of the poorest cities in the nation and allows local school districts flexibility with some of the federal money that is received.
Yet the biggest sticking point among the bill's negotiators in the past few weeks has been how to fund special education.
States and local school districts are required by federal law to deliver a particular standard of education to disabled students, and in exchange federal law promises to cover 40 percent of the cost. But the federal allocation of money has slipped in recent years, and now meets about 16 percent of states' special-education costs.
Senate Democrats offered an amendment to declare funding for special education an entitlement, meaning the program would be guaranteed its full 40 percent funding each year with no annual review.
But Republicans wanted to delay that decision until next year, when the special-education program is up for review. They promised to tie a funding decision to reform of the program, saying that in its current form it offers incentives for school systems to force students into special-education programs even if they don't belong there.
The Democrat-led amendment passed among the Senate conferees 17-8, with four Republicans joining all of the panel's Democrats and sole independent. But it failed 8-6 among the House members, with all Republicans opposing it and all Democrats supporting it. Amendments must gain the support of a majority of conferees from both chambers to be adopted.
For some lawmakers, the amendment's defeat means that they will vote against the bill when it comes to the floor of the Senate.

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