Yesterday the US Senate overwhelmingly passed the President's education overhaul bill, the first major reform of national education policy in 35 years. While the bill passed with a 91-8 vote, it contains elements that are sure to raise hackles on both sides fo the political divide. First, the Senate bill authorizes $33 billion in spending for the coming fiscal year. The House bill puts aside approximately $24 billion, while the President asked for only $19 billion, slightly above this year's level. The bill also contains a late amendment, introduced by Senator Jesse Helms, that takes away federal funding from any school district that discriminates against the Scouts or similar groups that "prohibit the acceptance of homosexuals." This amendment passed 51-49 after an emotionally charged debate and has been harshly criticized by several Democratic senators. An additional amendment to the new bill would require schools and school districts to implement uniform discipline policies for all children, regardless of whether they are disabled or receiving special education funds. The bill itself introduces a number of major changes to the education system in the United States. The most important of these is requiring all schools to test students annually in math and reading in grades 3 through 8 and in high school. Schools where scores do not improve are eligible for extra federal aid, but they must change their curriculum and retrain teachers. If scores don't improve after several years, students will be allowed to transfer and federal funds will be made available for tutoring or travel to another public school (but not for tuition to a private school). The bill is commonly regarded as a moderate victory for the President, as it allocates quite a bit more funding than he requested and does not include federal funds for private school tuition, but it retains the President's core principle of school accountability. With the exception of the Boy Scouts amendment, this bill was a compromise measure with overwhelming bipartisan support. The fight over the education budget, which will take place later this year, may prove more difficult.
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