WASHINGTON – In a boost to President Bush's domestic agenda, the House approved sweeping education legislation Wednesday that for the first time would tie federal aid to improvements in students' test scores.
The 384-45 House vote, hours after the Senate passed a $1.35 trillion tax cut over 11 years, gave Bush victories on his two biggest campaign promises even as his Republican Party faced the prospect of losing control of the Senate.
Omitted from the education package was Bush's plan for the government to provide vouchers for students to attend private schools. The White House abandoned the idea in order to strike a deal with Democrats on a bill that otherwise tracks Bush's blueprint for improving schools.
Efforts by conservatives to restore vouchers failed twice Wednesday.
Despite that defeat, Bush said the House vote was a "giant step toward improving America's public schools."
"The education reforms adopted today build on the principles of accountability, flexibility, local control and greater choices for parents," Bush said in a statement.
The bill reauthorizes the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provides most of the funds for K-12 education. The House version would provide about $24 billion for schools -- about $5.4 billion more than 2001.
The legislation would require states to develop and give tests in reading and math to every child in grades three through eight.
Schools unable to sufficiently improve test scores after one year would qualify for extra federal aid, but could be forced to replace some staff. Also, poor students in schools receiving federal Title I funds would have the choice of transferring to another public school.
At schools failing to show enough progress in scores after three consecutive years, disadvantaged students could use their portion of Title I funds for tutoring, summer school or transportation to another public school. Tutoring services could be provided by parochial schools.
The bill also consolidates several federal programs and requires schools to let students transfer to another public school if they are the victim of a violent crime at school.
Under the plan, school districts could use up to half of their federal funds without oversight from state or federal government. Title I funds still would have to be spent for programs to help poor children.
In a pilot program, 100 school districts -- two per state -- could enter into an agreement that would free schools from virtually all restrictions on spending.
Like the Senate version, the House bill would give schools nearly $1 billion per year for next five years to improve reading, with a goal of making sure every youngster can read by the third grade.
It would also give more money for developing charter schools and require all schools to develop new report cards that show a student's progress compared to other students locally and statewide.
The bill would that students with limited English skills be taught in English after they had attended school for three years in a row.
The House rejected two voucher amendments by wide margins after a lengthy and at times prickly debate. On the first amendment, which would have created a voucher program similar to the one Bush proposed, the vote was 273-155. Only two Democrats and one independent joined Republicans in support of the amendment.
The second measure, which failed on a similar, party-line vote, would have authorized $50 million for voucher demonstration programs in five school districts.
Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., invoked the civil rights battles of the 1960s, saying "defenders of the status quo stood in the schoolhouse door and said, 'You may not come in.' Now the defenders of the status quo stand in the door and say to the grandchildren of many of those Americans, 'You may not come out."'
Opponents said vouchers would take away money from struggling schools without giving families enough money to pay for private-school tuition.
Rep. Lynn Rivers, D-Mich., compared vouchers to the practice of bleeding patients with leeches to cure illness.
"This procedure was done with all the best intentions, but unfortunately a lot of patients died," she said.
The Senate may not get to its version of a voucher amendment until early June.
Slowing down the bill in the Senate, said one Democratic staff member, was Sen. James Jeffords' plan to travel Thursday to Vermont where he was expected to announce that he would leave the Republican Party and become an independent.
Jeffords, R-Vt., is chairman of the Senate education committee and has been managing the bill on the Senate floor.