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Congress Gives States Flexibility For Spending Federal School Aid

By Helen Dewar

and Linda Perlstein

The House and Senate Thursday overwhelmingly approved legislation to give states more flexibility in spending federal school money, kicking off a highly politicized debate over education policy that is likely to continue for the rest of the 106th Congress.

The vote to approve the Education Flexibility Partnership Act, or “ed-flex” bill, was 330 to 90 in the House and 98 to 1 in the Senate, reflecting its bipartisan sponsorship and relatively minor impact on the broader political debate over the federal role in education.

Republican leaders scheduled early votes on the legislation to burnish the GOP’s education image and demonstrate their ability to pass legislation with bipartisan votes. But just as the Democrats attempted to do in connection with the ed-flex bill, they will likely attempt to roll out bigger and more contentious education issues as next year’s elections approach.

Although the ed-flex measure was the first bill to pass both houses, differences must be resolved by a House-Senate conference before the measure goes to President Clinton, who has endorsed the general concept of the legislation although not all of its details.

Senate approval of the measure followed mostly party-line votes to defeat several Democratic amendments aimed at implementing Clinton’s education agenda, including his $11.4 billion plan to hire 100,000 teachers nationwide over the next six years to help reduce class sizes.

At the behest of Republicans, the Senate also voted to chip away at Clinton’s initial victory on the teacher hiring issue by allowing states to use for other educational purposes a $1.2 billion downpayment that Congress approved last year to hire more teachers. They would be allowed to spend it on special education for disabled students.