KWAME HOLMAN: Senate floor action on President Bush's plan to reform public education was delayed for weeks. The White House and Congressional Democrats used the time to haggle over how much to spend on the reforms and on existing federal education programs. The Senate went forward today, even though those and other differences remain.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Good morning, everybody.
KWAME HOLMAN: The president introduced the guiding principles of his education plan in January to largely favorable reviews from both parties in Congress.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We're here today to discuss a domestic policy issue of high importance, and that's public education-- how to make sure every child in America gets educated.
KWAME HOLMAN: Recent studies show student test scores in reading have remained stagnant, and students from poor school districts are falling further and further behind their counterparts in more affluent districts.
At the heart of the president's reform plan are proposals to:
Test children annually in grades three through eight in reading and math Give school districts more control over the use of federal funds Allow parents to spend federal funds on tutoring services for their youngsters, and Give them the right to transfer their children out of a failing public school into a better-performing public school.To underline his commitment to education, the president made the reform package the first piece of legislation he sent to Congress. Congressional leaders in turn dubbed education legislation House and Senate bills number one.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: It's time to come together to get it done so that we can truthfully say in America, no child will be left behind, not one single child. We share a moment of exceptional promise -- a new administration, a newly sworn-in Congress -- and we have a chance to think anew and act anew.
KWAME HOLMAN: And early on, it looked like President Bush's plan would sail through the Congress.
SEN. TED KENNEDY: We have a president that wants to make this a strong priority on education. And I think we have those that have leadership positions in the House and Senate that want to work with him and get something meaningful done.
KWAME HOLMAN: However, as Congressional hearings began, influential members said the president's call to raise elementary and secondary school spending by $1.6 billion over current levels just wasn't enough. Vermont Republican Jim Jeffords is chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
SEN. JIM JEFFORDS: I am going to fight very hard for very substantial sums of money for education.
SENATE CLERK: Mr. Jeffords. Mr. Jeffords - aye.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate took steps to boost education funding. Last month it voted to divert some $225 billion from the president's ten-year, $1.6 trillion tax-cut plan, and direct it toward education funding for ten years. However, most Democrats said that still was not enough.
SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE: It seems to me that before we proceed to this kind of legislation, before we talk about a piece of legislation as being reform, we should say we want to make sure that there is a commitment of resources. Before we have this mandate on all of our states and all of our schools, we ought to make sure that we have provided the funding. If we can't do that, then this does become very hollow. If we can't do that, then this piece of legislation, I believe, does nothing but set up the schools and the kids and the teachers for failure.
KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats initially demanded an increase of $15 billion next year over current spending. They lowered their request to $8 billion, but refused to allow the Senate to begin debate on education reform until a spending agreement was reached. Senate Republicans were frustrated.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: I understand what's going on. Leverage is being applied on the president and trying to get more money, get a commitment to spend more and more money. It's obvious what's going on. But I don't think that's the responsible thing to do.
SEN.CRAIG THOMAS: I am hopeful our friends on the other side of the aisle will not continue to hold up this matter. I think we ought to get on with it. Is there disagreement on some things? Of course. There will always be. But there is agreement on our goal. And our goal is to strengthen education in this country.
KWAME HOLMAN: Today, as Democrats finally agreed to allow the education bill to go forward, it was with the understanding that the spending impasse may dominate the debate for days.
SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: If you're going to turn around schools, you're going to have to invest. If you're going to turn around and train educators, you're going to have to invest. And that's what we've been saying at the outset of this debate. We've got to have the resources to be able to do the job, or we are failing these children and failing them in a very, very important and significant way.
KWAME HOLMAN: However, Tennessee's Bill Frist spoke for most Republicans in saying Congress should free more funding for education reforms designed at the local level.
SEN. BILL FRIST: What we have done historically is invented a new program and say, "this is the silver bullet; take the program, put a little bit of money in it, and hope that a little bit of money and our good intentions solve the problem," and it hasn't over time. Now, instead of inventing just a new program with a whole series of regulations, it is time for us to give flexibility and freedom and strip away the unnecessary regulations at the local level to capture the innovation, capture the creativity, but at the same, have strong accountability.
KWAME HOLMAN: But despite the quick start today, late this afternoon, Senate leaders realized a hoped-for agreement on school accountability and some spending issues did not materialize. That further delayed the Senate from moving to the amendment process. The education debate now is expected to extend well into next week.