C O V E R S T O R Y
Will President Clintons National Testing Program Test Our Resolve?
Setting the Stage
It was a Presidential priority. Heading down the track at 100 mph, the Administrations voluntary national (read federal) testing program had been quietly gathering steam for months and seemed unstoppable.
President Clinton called for standardized reading tests for all fourth graders, and math tests for all eighth graders by March 1999 to measure skills and establish high standards, and everything seemed wired for victory. Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, even announced the awarding of a $13 million contract to begin the development of the test. It was only a minor inconvenience that they had no congressional authority to spend these funds. Nothing was going to stand in their way.
But the Administration did not count on the resolve of one Congressman: Bill Goodling (R-PA), chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committeeor the energy of a movement accustomed to fighting uphill battles: home schoolers.
An Unlikely Hero
Representative Bill Goodling is no 10th Amendment conservative, and has supported the concept of national tests in the past. But, whether from a genuine change of heart or perhaps electoral challenges in his district, he was prepared to draw a line in the sandthere would be no national tests unless Congress specifically authorized such a test!
Goodling wanted to offer an amendment to the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Appropriations bill which sets education funding levels for fiscal year 1998. His amendment would prohibit funds in the bill from being used to develop or implement President Clintons national testing proposal, a program never approved by Congress.
However, the equally powerful Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Louisiana Congressman Bob Livingston [R], rebuffed Goodlings efforts claiming that the amendment would be legislating on an appropriations bill. Was the fight lost already?
Upon hearing this discouraging news, Home School Legal Defense Association encouraged Goodling and his staff to press on. National tests mean national curriculum, Mike Farris emphasized. Alerted by HSLDAs fax system to Livingstons attempt to stonewall, Louisiana home schoolers unleashed a barrage of calls on his office. Within two days, Livingston changed his mind and said he would allow the amendment.
Unexpected Action in the Senate
National testing was not even on the radar screen of the U.S. Senate. All debate and attention was focused on the House. Congressional staffers expected the House to vote on the Labor, HHS, Education Appropriations Bill on September 4, and the Senate a week later. This would give all concerned parties time to lobby and educate the Senate on the amendment to prohibit funding for national testing. After all, the Constitution says that all spending bills must originate in the Housebut, then again, the Constitution apparently carries little weight in Washington these days.
To the surprise of the House, the Senate leadership decided to schedule a last minute hearing and vote on national testing. With the Administrations plan under attack in the House, pressure had been mounting on the Senate to add something that supported testing in their version of the bill.
Senator Dan Coats (R-IN) announced he would propose an amendment, similar to Goodlings in the House, which would prohibit the Administration from spending funds on the development of a national test. Tom Harkin (D-IA) countered saying that he would fight Coats efforts and propose his own pro-testing amendment.
HSLDA pushed hard for Coats amendmentbut we were about to be sold out.
At the last minute, after meeting with former Education Secretary Bill Bennett, Coats was persuaded to soften his amendmentindeed he softened it so much that it essentially become the Administrations latest position. This was a great disappointment to conservatives who quickly coined it the Turn-Coats Amendment.
On September 11, the Senate voted 87 to 13 to pass Senator Coats compromise amendment regarding national testing. Although HSLDA made it clear to Coats office that home schoolers were opposed to any compromise, he still introduced his modified amendment.
Coats amendment established a national test but placed it under the authority of an independent board called the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB). The 26 members of this board must be confirmed by the Secretary of Education. However, as a result of the many phone calls from home educators to the Senate, home schools and private schools were completely excluded from national testing in Coats compromise amendment:
No state or local agency may require any private or parochial school student, or home-schooled individual, to take any test under this Act without the written consent of the student or individual.
The 13 Senators who stood firm with HSLDA in completely opposing national testing were all Republicans: Wayne Allard (CO), John Ashcroft (MO), Samuel Brownback (KS), Phil Gramm (TX), Rod Grams (MN), Chuck Hagel (NE), Jesse Helms (NC), Tim Hutchinson (AR), James Inhofe (OK), Don Nickles (OK), Jeff Sessions (AL), Richard Shelby (AL), and Fred Thompson (TN).
Although home schoolers were protected in the Senate spending bill, HSLDA continued to fight for the Goodling amendment in the House. Goodling was standing tough and compromise was unlikely.
A Shocking Surprise
In an astounding development on September 11, Senator Slade Gorton (R-WA) offered an amendment to completely defund Goals 2000, the School-to-Work Opportunity Act, the National Education Goals Panel, National Skills Standards Board, and other federal education programsover $11 billion worth. Gortons amendment passed by a narrow vote of 51 to 49.
The money saved from these defunded programs would be given in block grants directly to local education agencies based on the number of school aged children in each district. Bypassing state government bureaucrats, the districts may spend these funds as they deem appropriate. Most significantly, all those programs listed above, especially Goals 2000 and School-to-Work, will be rendered irrelevant by defunding. One Senate staffer told us that he believes the many calls from home schoolers contributed to the success of the Gorton amendment.
Immediately, HSLDA contacted House leadership to find a representative who would offer a companion measure. Congressman Pete Hoekstra (R-MI) stepped forward to take the challenge. Unfortunately, a pre-vote count indicated insufficient support for the measure, and Hoekstra elected to pull the amendment rather than risk a major defeat, further jeopardizing the Gorton amendment in conference.
On September 19, the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in support of Goodlings amendment to halt the national testing program pushed by President Clinton. The bi-partisan 296 to 125 vote reflected support from a broad political spectrum.
Congressman Goodling condemned the Senate compromise as a totally inadequate, unacceptable remedy. He said the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) would become pretty much a national school board under the Senate compromise.
With todays House vote, I think Americans will see the presidents federal testing program as a needless experiment that ignores the hard work of state and local authorities who have forged their own high academic standards and assessments, Goodling continued. Less than three weeks ago, the president and Secretary of Education Richard Riley said they didnt need any congressional approval. But todays vote is a clear indication that the nation wants common sense education ideasnot poorly designed federal tests created by Washington bureaucrats . . . We support high academic standards, but they should be developed in states and communitiesnot Washington.
Clinton Threatens to Veto
Facing the defeat of the top item on his education agenda, President Clinton warned Congress that he would veto any legislation that fails to fund his efforts to create voluntary national education testing standards.
I am very surprised that the president would suggest a veto that could force a government shutdown, said Goodling. We strongly support high academic standards and better schools, but strongly oppose new education tests developed by Washington bureaucrats.
Action Moves to the Conference Committee
As this issue goes to press, both Labor/HHS/Education bills have been sent to the Conference Committee to iron out differences between the billsincluding the two different testing amendments. Making their message of No federal testing, no compromise! loud and clear, home schoolers are inundating committee members offices with phone calls urging them to support the Goodling language in the reconciled bill.
The threat of national tests will remain with us for some time. This year, Congress may unite across party lines to stop the Presidents initiative. Or, Clinton may use his veto pen to force a showdown with Republicans. Home schoolers must remain vigilant, work hard, and pray fervently for protection from this very real danger, remembering that victory belongs to the Lord.
Some of the organizations which publicly & actively opposed Clintons national testing include: Family Research Council, Christian Coalition, People for the American Way, Concerned Women for America, NAACP, Americans for Tax Reform, Eagle Forum, Project 21, Family Life Seminars, Mathematically Correct, American Association of Christian Schools, and American Association of University Women.