Lawmakers open door for religious involvement in after-school programs
By The Associated Press
WASHINGTON Lawmakers handed a victory to President Bush's effort to give religious organizations access to federal funding by endorsing their involvement in after-school activities at public schools.
A bipartisan House-Senate conference committee approved the after-school language unanimously and without debate yesterday.
Congress has been working on an overhaul of federal education policies since last winter. The panel is working out differences in versions approved by the House and the Senate. Lawmakers hope to present Bush with a finished bill by the end of October.
Yesterday's voice vote, on a small part of the bill, cleared what has proved a contentious point.
Under its provisions, the federal before- and after-school program would be modified so that education departments in the 50 states would decide which programs are financed. School districts now apply directly to the U.S. Education Department.
The change would favor programs in which school districts collaborate with community organizations, including religious groups. It also would favor projects that focus on academics.
Bush has championed opening up more federal programs to religious organizations, so far with mixed results.
The House approved legislation this year to open 10 domestic programs, including GED preparation courses, to such groups. But passage came only after a heated fight and on a mostly party-line vote. And the proposal has yet to be introduced in the Senate.
Opponents worry tax dollars will wind up paying for programs that discriminate against employees based on religion, and that participants could be forced to participate in religious programs they find objectionable.
Religious organizations that receive the federal after-school funding would have to comply with the same hiring and civil rights rules as school districts, congressional aides said yesterday.
House and Senate lawmakers passed separate versions last spring of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provides most federal support for K-12 schools.
Both bills mandate annual reading and math tests for all pupils in grades three through eight and one grade in high school. Schools that don't improve test scores sufficiently risk losing part of their federal money. Their students then would have an option of using federal dollars for private tutoring or transportation to other public schools, and schools that failed to raise test scores over several years could be restaffed.
Lawmakers have yet to agree on how much funding schools will get next year. The House and Senate versions of the bill differ dramatically, with the Republican-controlled House proposing about $24 billion. The Senate, run by Democrats, wants $33 billion.
The federal government is spending about $18.4 billion this year on elementary and secondary education.
The committee also voted yesterday to approve Bush's signature Reading First program, which would provide nearly $5 billion to schools over five years to ensure that all students can read by third grade. The committee approved $900 million for 2002, triple this year's total.
Lawmakers said they want to produce a bill quickly, in spite of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
"We believe it's important that we finish with this bill," said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who chairs the conference committee. "Our children are our future, whether we're at war or not."
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