HOUSE ratifies Bush testing plan, plans to tackle vouchers

Wednesday, May 23rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ After losing a vote that would have stripped annual student testing from President Bush's education plan, House conservatives set their sights on vouchers, saying Bush's testing proposal should be coupled with an ``escape valve'' for children in low-scoring schools.

Lawmakers in both the House and Senate so far have kept vouchers out of the education bills they are considering, but the House was scheduled to take up two voucher amendments Wednesday. The Senate likely will debate its own voucher proposal later in the week.

White House advisers this week said the administration still supports the private-school tuition allowances, but Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., said Bush was ``missing in action'' on vouchers and expanded spending flexibility for school districts.

The House on Wednesday debated an amendment, offered by Hoekstra and favored by conservatives, to expand the percentage of federal funds school districts could use without oversight.

Rep. George Miller of California, senior Democrat on the House Education Committee, opposed the measure, saying, ``It's simply 'an amendment too far.'''

Conservatives on Tuesday met with Bush at the White House, where they said they would support the education plan _ with promises that he would back separate bills addressing their concerns.

The House on Tuesday ratified Bush's plan for annual math and reading tests for students in grades three through eight, defeating an attempt by Hoekstra and Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., to strip testing from the plan.

``Local school districts are absolutely furious'' about testing, Hoekstra said moments after the 255-173 vote.

The vote marked a solid victory for the president and a bipartisan coalition. Bush has declared education his top domestic priority.

An odd alliance of GOP conservatives and liberal Democrats came together in favor of Hoekstra's amendment, with liberals worried that standardized testing tends to be unfair to minority students. They also say more testing without large increases in education spending are ineffective.

``I think testing without a lot more money is a problem,'' Frank said.

Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Education Committee, told critics of testing, ``It's time to take our heads out of the sand and quit ignoring incompetence and quit ignoring that some of our kids, too many of them, are not learning.''

As written, the bill would have annual tests designed by the states to measure performance in math and reading. States that already give such tests would be required to report the scores to the Education Department.

Schools whose test scores didn't improve after one year would qualify for additional federal aid. After three years of flat scores, students could use federal money for tutoring, summer school or transportation to other public schools.

Conservatives have grumbled that vouchers to help pupils pay private school tuition were cut out of the education bill before it got to the House floor. They also have complained that the bill provides too much federal money and not enough flexibility in spending it.

Indeed, a few minutes after rejecting the testing amendment, the House narrowly approved one that would give 100 school districts _ two per state _ virtually unlimited spending discretion for federal funds. The amendment, offered by Rep. Patrick Tiberi, R-Ohio, and Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., was approved, 217-209.

Following Bush's meeting with about 20 rebellious conservatives, Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., said he was ready to support the president's bill ``unless there are major changes.''

He added, ``My impression is the president is eager to sign a bill and again, this bill won't have everything that we as conservatives want in it. I don't think it has everything in it that the president would like to see in it. But most, if not all, of us in that room agreed that we need to get something through.''

A spokesman for Rep. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., sponsor of a contentious flexibility amendment, said DeMint had agreed to withdraw the measure.