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A zero on national tests

National | Overly cautious GOP leaders seem to hand Clinton a win

Issue: "Walk the Talk," Nov. 15, 1997

Republicans were put to the test last week on a key education issue, and conservatives gave the resulting compromise a barely passing grade. With the witching hour of fall recess approaching, lawmakers were scrambling to finish up last-minute business, but the president's proposal to develop national tests in reading and math was proving difficult to deal with. The Education Department's $80 billion budget hung in the balance as President Clinton threatened to veto a major appropriations bill if he didn't get the needed funding for his tests. On October 30, conservatives, who had vowed to block national testing at all costs, started hearing things go bump in the night. It turned out to be the House leadership fumbling another opportunity to confront the president on an issue that looked winnable.

The House had voted earlier, by an overwhelming 295 to 125 margin, to bar the administration from spending any Education Department funds to develop national tests. Because the Senate failed to include such a provision in its appropriations bill, the issue went to a House-Senate Conference Committee. Rep. Bill Goodling (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Education Committee and a strong opponent of national testing, says House GOP leaders promised him the right to sign off on any compromise reached by the conference committee. Like his conservative supporters, Mr. Goodling argued that national testing would inevitably lead to a nationally mandated curriculum for all schools.

Under pressure to adjourn by Nov. 7, conferees on Oct. 30 approved a compromise without first checking with Mr. Goodling. The Pennsylvania Republican responded angrily, charging House leaders with breaking a promise and caving in on the testing issue. In a memo to Newt Gingrich faxed to conservative supporters, Mr. Goodling accused the Speaker of cutting a deal that violated "the Republican philosophy of making sure that education decisions are decided on the local level and not in closed-door meetings in Washington or by this city's bureaucracy." In another memo to his Republican colleagues, Mr. Goodling mocked the Speaker's promise that he would have final approval on any compromise language. Quoting a fellow Republican, Mr. Goodling noted that "that promise was made at 11:15 a.m.-wait until you see what the next hour will bring."

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Scrambling to avoid another confrontation with disgruntled conservatives, House leaders insisted that the compromise was merely a matter of miscommunication and said they had never approved such a move. A Gingrich spokesman told WORLD that "Chairman Goodling has primary responsibility for the compromise, and we've been consistent with that position throughout." But Appropriations Committee members countered that they would never have approved the compromise plan over the objections of Mr. Goodling without the blessing of the leadership.

Finally, a week after the initial blowup, negotiators reached a compromise of sorts. Although test development will go on as planned, a divided GOP won White House approval for a year-long study by the National Academy of Sciences to see whether a scale could be developed to link results from the patchwork of existing state tests. This would give the president the data he wants, without extending the power of the federal Education Department.

Another key provision of the compromise prohibits any pilot testing or field testing of the exams before fiscal year 1999, giving conservatives another chance to kill the whole program next year. "We will mount vigorous efforts in the spring to totally stop this thing," says a top Republican aide, adding that development of a valid exam is all but impossible apart from simultaneous pilot testing. "We have dead-ended development of this test," the aide says. "There's just not much they can do [without pilot tests]."

But the Clinton Administration has proven effective at getting around the will of Congress before, so there is little doubt that development of national tests will proceed one way or another. Once development money is spent, critics charge, it becomes that much harder to scrap the tests. The time to make a stand was last week, they say.

"The party was begging for a winning issue in education," says Martin Hoyt, a lobbyist for the American Association of Christian Schools, which strongly opposed the testing proposal. "This should have been the one. We had the support of the black caucus, the Hispanic caucus, and a moderate Republican [Mr. Goodling] whose committee had jurisdiction, and we still couldn't win. There's a problem with leadership when you can't win with all those elements. They're stymied by fear and demoralization. It's like a guy who gets hit by a pitch in baseball and doesn't want to get back in the box. They're afraid of a veto. They just want to get the session over with and get out of here."

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