Our 11th-Hour Quest to Preserve Federal Aid

Nick Penning

Despite wailing from critics of Congress and the Clinton administration (and often public school administrators), AASA pulled a sure loser of a “must-pass” education bill out of the fire in the waning days of the 103rd Congress and got it signed into law.

The legislation in question, the “Improving America’s Schools Act,” carried a low number, H.R. 6, signalling it as a high leadership priority for the Democrats. The bill contained all the major federal elementary and secondary education programs except aid for disabled children and vocational education. At stake was whether the federal government would continue funding the $7 billion Title I (formerly Chapter 1) program with FY’95 funds.

Without the authorization bill, Title I and all other programs would have expired on Oct. 1, jeopardizing the appropriations increases (e.g., $301 million for Title I basic grants) contained in the FY 1995 Labor/HHS/Education appropriations bill. This bill already had been passed and sent to the president. The money was waiting, but the “OK, spend it” message had to be sent before that money could move. Also endangered were Impact Aid, Chapter 2, a new $100 million infrastructure grant program to help repair school buildings in high-poverty areas, the magnet schools program, the Eisenhower professional development program, the drug-free schools programs, bilingual education, and immigrant education.

Three Hurdles

As days drew closer to the Oct. 7 adjournment target for a Congress desperate to head home for re-election campaigns, the H.R. 6 House/Senate conference committee labored to come up with a compromise that would please both chambers. The final issues were:

* How the new Title I formula would affect pro gram spending in states and congressional districts. This is always a delicate issue, especially when nearly everyone agrees the program should grow and ought to focus the most attention on children most in need of extra academic help;

* The teaching of certain “lifestyle” issues. The Senate version of H.R. 6 contained an amendment by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.G., prohibiting any curriculum from encouraging homosexual activity. Conferees settled on prohibition of encouragement of any sexual activity, heterosexual or homosexual; and

* Prayer in public schools.

The latter issue became the focus of those who wanted to kill the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which would no longer exist if H.R. 6 was defeated. Helms and Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, each sought his own way of going after the bill.

The first test came in the House in a do-or-die vote set for Sept. 30, the final day of the 16th annual AASA/AAESA “We Care” Legislative Conference and the last day of FY’94. The vote was on a Johnson “motion to recommit” H.R. 6 to the conference committee with instructions to accept the Helms prayer language, which would terminate all federal aid to any district that did not have a policy permitting student-initiated, voluntary, constitutionally-protected prayer. The amendment virtually required school administrators to be constitutional scholars, and AASA argued against such a restriction on schools.

The HR. 6 conferees accepted a Senate compromise offered by Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kan., allowing termination of a district’s federal funds only if a court found the district “willfully violated a federal court order mandating that [the district] remedy a violation of the constitutional right of any student with respect to prayer in public schools…” AASA and other groups accepted the Kassebaum language. Johnson said that wasn’t good enough and demanded a vote to recommit.

The day before the vote, “We Care” attendees were energized into action by Jack Jennings, general counsel for education for the House Education and Labor Committee. Jennings advised them to “forget the lure of the Smithsonians and the other museums … the fate of this bill could well rest in your hands.” He urged attendees to storm House members’ offices and demand they vote “against the motion to recommit H.R. 6.”

AASA and AAESA members did turn their backs on the museums and fanned out over Capitol Hill, arguing with House members face-to-face, using the facts presented by Jennings and AASA’s briefing materials, so no member could avoid a commitment.

Later that afternoon, House Elementary and Secondary Education Subcommittee Chairman Dale Kildee, D-Mich., appearing almost shaken before education lobbyists and a number of AASA/AAESA members, pleaded with us to work as hard as possible against that motion to recommit. He was convinced the balance of the vote depended on our intensive last-minute efforts.

Our Legislative Corps (via fax and phone) and our “We Care” attendees kept up the pressure on targeted Democrats and Republicans. They also turned up the volume to such an extent that House members no longer felt they could take education for granted. The motion to recommit failed in a dramatic 184-215 vote.

The following week, after similar pressure was applied to senators, Helms’ filibuster (which required 60 votes to stop) was broken in a lopsided 75-24 vote. By the end of the day, the Senate passed H.R. 6, 77-20, and it was to the White House.

Jennings later said that our strong and dedicated volunteer members of the AASA Legislative Corps and “We Care” attendees “were the deciding edge” in this battle to save federal aid to education.

COPYRIGHT 1994 American Association of School Administrators

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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