WASHINGTON – Still aiming to approve an education bill this fall, lawmakers are expected to ratify several proposals in President Bush's plan next week including his $5 billion reading program.
Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who chairs the congressional group working on the bill, said the meetings, despite last week's terror attacks and the activity in response, are a sign that terrorism "will not derail America's domestic policy agenda."
Bush has made education his top domestic priority.
Last spring, House and Senate lawmakers passed similar versions of a sweeping education bill sought by Bush. The revised Elementary and Secondary Education Act provides most of the federal support for K-12 schools. Negotiators are now hashing out the differences.
Both bills mandate annual reading and math tests for all pupils in grades three through eight and one grade in high school. Schools that don't improve test scores sufficiently risk losing part of their federal money. Their students, meanwhile, would have the option of using federal dollars for private tutoring or transportation to other public schools. A school that failed to raise test scores over several years could be restaffed.
Lawmakers said this week they want to produce a bill as quickly as possible, in spite of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
"There are still some tough issues which the conference committee has yet to work out, including funding and accountability measures, but I'm convinced that we'll have a strong bipartisan compromise in the end that the President can sign," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
Lawmakers are expected to ratify agreements Tuesday on financing charter schools and after-school programs, as well as the president's signature reading program. Bush wants nearly $5 billion over five years to help all students learn to read by third grade.
Last week's attacks came minutes before first lady Laura Bush was to have testified to Congress about the importance of early reading skills for children, during what was to have been a week of White House events focused on reading. President Bush was reading to children in a Florida school when he learned of the attacks.
Lawmakers said it is too early to tell whether the $40 billion Congress approved for emergency help, recovery and intelligence in the wake of the attacks will shrink the education bill substantially.
One Democratic source close to the negotiations said it is inevitable that financing for the education program will be affected. Democratic lawmakers, who have consistently fought for more spending, still said they'd continue the push.
"My position remains the same, that we've got to have sufficient funding to carry out the purpose of the bill, to get the results that the president and the Congress want," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.
The House and Senate versions of the bill differ dramatically in how much money they would provide. The Republican-controlled House proposed about $24 billion, while the Senate, run by Democrats, approved $33 billion.
The federal government is spending about $18.4 billion this year on elementary and secondary education.
Nationwide, most schools get only about 8 percent of their budgets from the federal government. Most of their money comes from state and local taxes. The federal contribution to school budgets is higher in schools that serve more children who are poor, who are not proficient in English or who require special services.