EDUCATION legislation passes key tests in House, Senate

Friday, May 4th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush's ambitious education package passed key tests in Congress, surviving a challenge in the House, while the Senate proposed adding billions of dollars in funding for poor children and those with disabilities.

Annual testing in reading and math, the cornerstone of Bush's plan, survived its first serious challenge as a House committee rejected a bid to kill the tests for third- through eighth-graders.

In the Senate, lawmakers went on record in favor of far more funding _ roughly $2.5 billion a year for 10 years _ than Bush proposed for programs to help poor children and those with disabilities.

``We owe our children no less,'' said Sen. James Jeffords, R-Vt., a longtime advocate of increased funding for the program that assists the disabled.

In a second vote, coming late Thursday, the Senate voted to expand funding that covers education for poor children so that all those eligible, about 10 million, will be helped. Currently only about 3.6 million children get help from the program. The measure expanding the program was approved 79-21.

Officials said the total additional cost would be well over $100 billion over a decade, but the funds will need to be approved annually by Congress, which could reduce the money available.

The funding victories would increase support for final passage of the bill, expected in the next few weeks, said supporters of the bill.

Sens. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the votes signaled strong support for education. Dodd said it was ``really a remarkable day for education.''

``Essentially we've got a bipartisan core agreement and we're very pleased,'' said Sandy Kress, a top White House education adviser.

Early Thursday, Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., offered an amendment to scuttle the system of annual tests, which would measure the progress schools make in increasing student achievement.

Republican conservatives have grumbled about that aspect of the president's program, particularly in light of a committee vote Wednesday that stripped out a private school voucher provision for students stuck in failing schools.

``The only reason conservatives are willing to tolerate testing is because it is balanced with flexibility and choice,'' said Rep. Bob Schaffer, R-Colo. ``The value of testing has always been to empower parents. Now parents have been cut out of the bill.''

The White House had made clear its support for the testing as recently as Wednesday, when a top Bush adviser met privately with GOP lawmakers. At the meeting it was pointed out that new polling data suggests most Americans favor mandatory state testing, said sources, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The House and Senate bills are similar, both giving school districts greater flexibility in their use of federal money.

Students in schools that fail to improve significantly would be able to use federal funds for private tutoring or transportation to another public school.

In the Senate, Sens. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, sponsored the amendment to increase aid for students with disabilities. Federal law mandates a 40 percent federal contribution of the existing program, but Congress has been providing only 15 percent.

The amendment, which passed by voice vote, would increase the federal share by $2.5 billion a year over 10 years, reaching the 40 percent level in 2007.