Federal Dateline

An Eye on Congress’ Twisted Trail

by NICK PENNING


So now begins the second and final installment of the 105th Congress. What would they do to us? Notice I said "to," not "for." Because the first session of this gathering of men and women, at least at their meanest and greenest (a majority in the House of Representatives are only in their first or second two-year term), seemed determined to lash out at public education.

The president, through his advocacy of a national testing program, appeared to suggest that public schools somehow weren’t up to the task of educating young people.

In its darkest moments, Congress would have dumped as much money as possible on private and parochial schools, seen as the savior of inner-city America. President Clinton, through his national bullhorn, would have encouraged most schools to offer the voluntary national test. And suddenly we would have had a draining away of federal funds at the same time we’d be installing a national curriculum. But it didn’t happen.

Just as quickly as it had embraced vouchers, the House suddenly backed away. The president, turned aside even by stalwarts in his own party, had to compromise on the test, allowing it to be developed, but not trial tested or distributed.

So what lies ahead?


Spending the Surplus
We have what appears to be, wonder of wonders, a surplus of dollars in the federal treasury. This roaring economy, even as the stock market got a bit shaky last fall, keeps generating jobs and dollars and more tax revenue. The big question in Congress is, "What shall we do with all this extra money?"

Will they use it to start ratchetting down the enormous $6 trillion national debt? Not likely. Remember, they’re politicians. I’m reminded of the story of the squirrel, who saves and saves and stores away, while his fellow creature, the rabbit, hops along his merry way, eating for today and not worrying about tomorrow. Those in Congress, regardless of their political stripe, are not happy to just store money away for the winter or to pay off old debts.

Consequently, the Republicans are speaking of tax breaks (watch out for tuition tax credits!) and the Democrats are calling for pension portability, something AASA has been seeking for years, and possibly spending increases.

Pension portability would be the answer to many a superintendent’s prayers. And more spending, assuming it includes public schools, is tempting for those of us who advocate for schools and children. This past year Congress bestowed an increase of near-historic proportions (19.2 percent) on special education, the program that’s eating its way into the meat of many school budgets. But their support for Title I was soft (2.7 percent increase), leading many of us to believe Congress is not sold that Title I works.

All Views Considered
Which way do we turn; to whom do we listen? As always, we listen to all and consider all views--except when it comes to vouchers or tuition tax credits. More doors swing open to AASA than to many of our counterparts because we carry no political baggage and are recognized leaders, the chief executives of often the largest enterprise in many communities. No one in Congress can ignore a person of that stature with such an altruistic mission.

We in government relations take our marching orders from you, through your elected leadership and your representatives on the AASA Federal Policy and Legislation Committee. We’ll follow the legislative agenda, as drafted by the Federal Policy Committee and adopted by the Executive Committee and Delegate Assembly. And, if a matter of some doubt arises, we’ll be in conference calls with committee members. And through it all, we’ll be diligent on The Hill, trying to keep a sharp eye on the twisted trail taken by Congress, hoping for that bright opening for schools and children in our national policy debate.

Nick Penning is a policy analyst at AASA. E-mail: npenning@aasa.org