Monday, November 12, 2001

Boehner does a balancing act

Education bill gets lots of input, argument

By Derrick DePledge
Enquirer Washington Bureau

        WASHINGTON — On the day before Halloween, in a rare public session, House and Senate negotiators met to discuss education reform.

        The principals had been talking privately for weeks to work through what seemed like an endless set of differences and, for once, all the secrecy seemed warranted.

        Almost everyone had a demand.

        The government should block federal money to school districts that prevent students from praying, or schools that discriminate against the Boy Scouts of America for excluding homosexuals. Military recruiters should have the same access to high school students as college or corporate scouts. Home schools should be exempt from the Gun-Free Schools Act.

        Special-education students deserve more money and attention. So do poor students, gifted students, urban schools, rural schools, charter schools.

        “There are literally hundreds of issues,” said Rep. John
Boehner, R-Ohio, who is chairing the conference committee. “It has to have a very delicate balance.”

        President Bush had called education reform his most important legislative priority before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and House and Senate leaders have committed to a final version of the bill this year.

        Negotiators basically have agreed to tests to measure student progress with consequences for failing schools but are hung up on a range of details. The main players, known as the “Big Four,” — Mr. Boehner; Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.; Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.; and Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H. — mostly have shut out the interest groups, the teachers' unions and even the White House from private deliberations that they hope will produce a compromise soon.

        Observers are waiting to see how they settle several difficult issues, including how the government will measure annual progress, teacher certification, block grants

        to states and special-education money.

        “Everything is being very closely held,” said Bruce Hunter, director of governmental relations for the American Association of School Administrators. The Arlington, Va., group represents school superintendents. “This is such a huge bill that is full of things that are loaded culturally.”

        “It's been very secretive,” said Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the National Education Association public education advocacy group. “From my perspective, it's making my job more difficult, but it makes their job a lot easier.

        “It's the details that are critical,” he said. “We need to see what the actual bill language says.”

        Mr. Hunter, Mr. Packer and others familiar with the conference have praised Mr. Boehner, who did not have much background on education policy when he took control of the House Education and the Workforce Committee this year.

        At the time, some educators questioned whether Mr. Boehner would be too partisan or dismissive of interest groups. Many now give him good marks for guiding complicated negotiations fairly.

        “A lot of people have been pleasantly surprised,” Mr. Packer said.

        Conservatives, who lost on school vouchers and generally oppose an expanded federal role in education, reserve most of their disappointment for Mr. Bush. Mr. Boehner, who was responsible for moving the president's plan through the House, has sought to accommodate conservatives whenever possible.

        For example, at the public session last month, Mr. Boehner tried — but failed — to add an amendment ensuring that lessons on hate crimes do not undermine the moral or religious beliefs of students or their parents.

        “It's just been very tricky to juggle,” said Nathaniel Koonce, an education policy analyst at the conservative public policy group Empower America. “He's worked as well as he could, but the process has not been friendly to conservatives.

        “We could have wished for a stronger lead from the White House and other quarters on our issues.”

        Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., said Mr. Boehner realizes that as chairman he has a larger mission.

        “I think he's done a good job of meeting with us on our concerns,” Mr. Souder said. “But the president's views count for more than mine.”

        Mr. Boehner said the conference has about a dozen issues left to resolve before returning to Congress with a deal. If successful, he said the package could bring fundamental change to public schools.

        “This will probably be the most important bill that I ever carry,” he said. “There has to be this balance between real accountability for our schools, and then in giving our local schools and our states the flexibility in order for it to work.”


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