WASHINGTON – Senate and White House negotiators agreed Wednesday to a plan that takes money from persistently failing schools and gives it to families for tutoring programs.
The plan attempts to restore vestiges of President Bush's school voucher proposal without directly giving money to private schools. It also includes provisions, supported by centrist Democrats, that would force failing schools to give students the option of transferring to another public school. As a last resort, the failing school would be reopened as a charter school with a new staff and curriculum, two Senate sources familiar with the negotiations said.
The Senate will debate the education package later this month.
Bush's original proposal would have allowed the families to use their share of the federal funds given to low-performing schools for tuition to private schools, for transportation to other public schools, or for other educational services.
In a compromise worked out by Senate and White House negotiators this week, the parents could use some of the money only on supplementary afterschool, weekend or summer tutoring programs, sources said.
The programs could be run by community-based groups, for-profit businesses or local school districts.
Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., had tried to attach the tuition voucher plan to the education bill in committee, but withdrew it in the face of almost certain defeat. At the time, he left open the possibility of introducing a voucher amendment when the bill reached the Senate floor.
Democrats have raised the possibility of a filibuster over vouchers, saying they would drain money from struggling public schools.
But in negotiations this week, the two sides agreed on some of the top goals of Bush's education agenda, including testing, more school accountability and block grants for schools to upgrade their teaching skills.
One of the Senate sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the block grant program, if approved by Congress and signed into law by Bush, initially would be tried in a limited fashion.
In another compromise, lawmakers agreed to include charter school and public school choice plans championed by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.
"It was incumbent on us, if we didn't like vouchers, to come back and provide an answer," a Democratic aide said.
The two sides were still negotiating Thursday on the actual amount of money the Senate would propose for education spending, a Republican Senate aide said, adding that disagreements over funding could affect some Democrats' support of the proposals.
"If you don't get agreement on funding levels, then you have to worry that support for the bill might not be as strong," he said.
The president has promised to boost spending on education and has proposed a $44.5 billion budget for the Education Department, an 11.5 percent increase over the original budget proposal for this year.
Democrats want to double the education budget over the next 10 years. The Senate on Wednesday approved an amendment by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, that would increase funding for education by $250 billion in that period.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., has said he wants to take up the education bill on April 23, when the Senate returns from its two-week Easter recess.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee last month unanimously approved a bill that closely resembles Bush's education blueprint. It includes giving schools increased flexibility for spending federal dollars in exchange for more accountability, requiring them to test students annually in math and reading from third through eighth grade.
The committee rejected a proposal from Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., that would have required schools to set aside $1.5 billion for teachers' professional development, and an amendment from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., that would have provided $2.4 billion to reduce elementary school class sizes through third grade.