WASHINGTON – House lawmakers could debate President Bush's education package as early as next week, setting the stage for a clash over private school vouchers and a Republican push to give states vast control over federal education money.
The education bill, a centerpiece of Bush's domestic agenda, easily cleared the House Education Committee, which approved it 41-7, with few changes.
``This is representative of what the national consensus on education really is,'' Rep. George Miller of California, the panel's senior Democrat, said after Wednesday's vote.
All but one of the committee's Democrats and all but six Republicans backed the bill, which would require annual testing of students in grades three through eight in reading and math while giving school districts more authority over spending.
School districts could spend up to half of their federal funds with no input from states or the federal government — which supporters say would enable schools to target money to their greatest needs, such as teacher training, hiring more teachers or buying more computers.
Republican conservatives want states to enjoy the same freedom over spending, and said they would bring amendments to the House floor to achieve that. The Senate version of the bill relegates the spending proposal to a demonstration program for only seven states.
The measure no longer contains some of the provisions Bush initially proposed, though, including one to allow students in failing schools to use $1,500 in federal funds for private school tuition.
Conservatives vowed to bring back that proposal. A compromise in both the House and Senate bills would allow the money to be used only for tutoring or transportation to another public school.
``We lost some ground in those areas, but the good news is that Democrats are working with Republicans,'' said Rep. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who voted against the bill.
Bush said the bill contained ``monumental reforms,'' and called the vote ``a first step toward reforming America's education system and making sure no child is left behind.''
Education Secretary Rod Paige issued a statement saying the bill ``reflects each of the four pillars of President Bush's education reform plan — accountability, flexibility and local control, research-based reform and expanded parental options.''
Several officials said Republican leaders and White House chief of staff Andy Card, who participated via telephone conference call, pledged to support major changes when the bill reaches the House floor. These include an amendment to restore the school voucher program, as well as greater flexibility for some school districts and states. A companion bill in the Senate includes flexibility language that the House conservatives like.
The Senate is considering its version of the education bill this week.
Lawmakers were expected to vote Thursday on an amendment by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., that would give states $7.1 billion over five years to hire more teachers. Senate Republicans say the measure could force states to hire more teachers without necessarily training them adequately.
Unlike the Senate bill, the House bill would allow students in schools that don't improve in annual tests to transfer to another public school immediately. The tutoring and transportation provisions would take effect after three years.
Democrats, teachers' unions and a few Republicans oppose vouchers for private schools, saying they would drain money from struggling public schools. Conservatives say the loss of vouchers gutted the bill.
``I think it's a sad day when Republicans pass a bill that's to the left of Ted Kennedy,'' said Rep. Bob Schaffer, R-Colo., referring to the liberal Democratic senator from Massachusetts who is leading an effort to win more federal education spending.
Conservative leaders and organizations, including James Dobson and the National Association of Christian Teachers, last week said they had withdrawn their support for the bill, as did the small group of committee Republicans led by Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., and Schaffer.
``At the end of the day, we are left with federally mandated testing with a federal audit, new reading, math and science programs and a 22 percent increase in spending in the first year,'' said a paper circulated by the group.