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Ehlers to Reintroduce Controversial Science Education Bill

Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R-MI)
Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R-MI)

By Richard M. Todaro

When the House of Representatives surprised even itself last October and voted down a popular bill to provide money and personnel for elementary and middle school science and math education, it represented a stunning display of the power of the country's largest teachers' unions. The defeat also set the stage for a further escalation in the battle over school vouchers, with the bill's chief architect, Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R-MI), vowing to reintroduce the bill in the first session of the new 107th Congress. Ehlers is one of two members of the House who hold PhD's in physics, and is a Fellow of the APS.

Introduced by Ehlers in April 2000, the National Science Education Act (NSEA) had 16 original co-sponsors, a number that grew to include 62 Republicans and 45 Democrats by the time it was brought out of committee and to the full House in September. So confident were its sponsors of overwhelming, bipartisan passage that the bill was fast-tracked under so-called suspension of the rules, meaning the bill had to get a two-thirds majority.

But on October 23rd, just one day before the scheduled vote, the National Education Association (NEA), the American Association of School Administrators, and several other influential teachers' unions discovered a funding provision in the bill that they consider to be unacceptable. This was the so-called "master teacher" provision that directed the National Science Foundation to make federal money available to any schools, public or private, to hire someone to oversee the development of science education classroom curricula.

"We oppose giving federal monies to private schools," said Diane Shust, the manager of federal relations at NEA, who oversees lobbying activity. "It was the provision that provided [private] schools with direct money. That is a voucher."

When the vote came on October 24, the bill got a simple majority but failed to get a two-thirds majority, the final tally being 215 to 156. Voting no were 140 Democrats, including 30 of the 45 Democratic sponsors. Moreover, of the 22 Democrats on the House Science Committee, which had unanimously cleared the bill in late-July, 10 voted no, three voted "present" and one did not vote.

Ehlers introduced NSEA as H.R. 4271 last April, along with two other bills designed to improve science and math education. These were H.R. 4272, the National Science Education Enhancement Act, and H.R. 4273, the National Science Education Incentive Act.

The first two acts deal with science, math, engineering, and technology (SMET) education. The third would amend the tax code to provide tax incentives for private companies and individuals participating in SMET educational activities.

The NSEA would amend the 1950 law that established the National Science Foundation (NSF) to include new grant programs related to improving SMET education. Chief among these is the Master Teacher Grant Program, which provides federal money directly to public and private schools in order to hire a "master teacher." The master teacher would provide support to up to 10 classroom teachers, and be "responsible for in-classroom assistance and oversight of hands-on inquiry materials, equipment, and supplies, including supplying and repairing such materials," according to the text of the bill. The bill provides $50 million a year to fund various grants, including the Master Teacher Grant Program.

After being introduced on April 11th, NSEA was sent to the House Committee on Science where, according to a knowledgeable source, it was bottled up for several months because of Republican opposition to a provision inserted by Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), providing money for the GO Girl program, which encourages girls to go into science education. Nevertheless, Ehlers, who spent nearly two years developing the bill in conjunction with educators and legislators, managed to get the bill brought to a floor vote.

"Ehlers talked to enough people and convinced [House Science Committee Chair F. James] Sensenbrenner [Jr., (R-WI)] that the bill should go to a floor vote," the source said.

The bill was voted unanimously out of committee on July 25th and brought to the full House for a vote scheduled for Oct. 24th.

The first sign of trouble came on Oct. 23rd when a Democratic aide noticed the master teacher provision language.

"We were sitting around during a lull in [unrelated] negotiations when I saw the language and said, 'Whoa! There's a church-state entanglement here,'" the aide said, as quoted in the Nov. 10th edition of Science.

The NEA and other teachers' union lobbyists were alerted and phones began ringing in the offices of Democratic House members.

In the end, many of the Democratic members on the science committee voted against the very bill they had sponsored, thus ensuring its defeat. Overall, only eight of the 22 Democrats on the committee voted for the bill. Only 44 of 187 House Democrats voted for the bill.

The bill's reversal of fortunes was so stunning that it surprised even the NEA. Lobbyist Joel Packard, who admitted that his organization had not read the bill until Oct. 23rd, said in the Science interview, "To be honest, we thought it would pass and we'd have to take our case to the Senate."

Shust said the problem was not spotted because this education-related bill didn't follow the normal route and go to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

"I can assure you that if had gone through the usual committee, everyone would have been alerted to this [language] much sooner," Shust said.

Opponents of the bill insist that the master teacher provision is a violation of the separation of church and state, as expressed in the 1971 Supreme Court case of Lemon v. Kurtzman, which struck down state programs that provided public money to teachers of secular subjects in private schools. The issue revolves around the distinction between programs providing money to private schools for educational materials and professional development, which are permitted, and programs providing money to private schools to hire teachers.

In the Science interview, Ehlers disputed such a distinction on the grounds that NSF includes private school teachers in training and curriculum development programs. He also plans to reintroduce the bill in the current Congress with no modifications.

"I don't see any reason to modify my position, and I resent the last-minute effort to dismantle [the bill]," Ehlers said in the Science interview.

Shust said that the NEA would drop its opposition if Ehlers modifies the bill's funding provision.

"There is a mechanism in the current education law that could have been used and which we hope will be used, when Mr. Ehlers reintroduces the bill, that provides the money through the local education agency," Shust said.

She also praised Ehlers for his overall efforts.

"He has a real commitment to the issue of science and math education, and we hope we can work with him."


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