House Fails to Pass Ehlers' National Science Education Act The National Science Education Act (H.R. 4271), the first of Rep. Vern Ehlers' (R-MI) trio of bills to improve science education, failed to gain House passage on October 24. The bill, which would have authorized $235.3 million over three years to improve and enhance science and math education programs at the National Science Foundation, had 118 cosponsors and had enjoyed broad bipartisan support. On the House floor last week, it received 215 "yea" and 156 "no" votes, but because of the parliamentary procedure being used, it did not pass.
The bill was approved unanimously by the Science Committee this summer, with praise from both sides of the aisle. However, just within 48 hours before floor consideration of the bill, some Democratic Members became concerned about a provision that authorized $50 million in each of the three years for NSF to make grants to "a state or local education agency, a private elementary or middle school, or a consortium of any combination of those entities, for the purpose of hiring a master teacher" to provide support and expertise to other teachers. A question was raised about the constitutionality of making available federal grant money to private schools for the hiring of these master teachers.
The bill was to be voted on under a procedure called suspension of the rules, which is intended to speed passage by limiting floor debate, not allowing amendments to be offered, and requiring two- thirds of a majority for passage. Members had one vote with which to both approve suspension of the rules and pass the bill at the same time. Concerned Democrats asked to have the provision in question removed from the bill, but were unable to get agreement. Because of the controversy, enough Members were reluctant to agree to suspension of the rules that the bill did not get two-thirds of a majority and was not passed, even though the vote was 215-156. Under the House rules, the bill has not been rejected; the House just voted not to suspend the rules in order to pass it. But because of the lateness of the congressional session, this means it will almost certainly have to be reintroduced next year.
Much of the concern over the private school provision was voiced by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX). Johnson had been an avid supporter of the legislation and author of some of its provisions, and had joined Ehlers at the press conference introducing it (see FYI #39). During the floor debate, Johnson made it very clear that she supported the remainder of H.R. 4271: "We need a clean bill because we need the provisions otherwise of this bill. This section and only this section is the cause of much of my concern." She continued, "Just as other members, I would like to see the good provisions of H.R. 4271 implemented, but I can not justify...support of such legislation that risks being struck down because of the unconstitutional provision."
House Science Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) noted that the provision had been in the bill since it was first introduced, and responded with examples of other federal education programs that provide grants to private as well as public schools. Rep. Robert Scott (D-VA) submitted for the record a Congressional Research Service study of the provision, which was inconclusive but agreed that "the Master Teacher program that would be authorized by H.R. 4271 appears to raise a constitutional question" under the establishment of religion clause. Sensenbrenner countered that the provision in question could, if proved unconstitutional, be removed from the bill even after passage. However, enough Members had doubts and voted against the bill (140 Democrats, 15 Republicans, and one Independent, including some of the cosponsors) that it did not pass.
Because of the inability of the two sides to resolve the issue, this legislation to improve science and math education is almost certainly dead for the year. FYI #131 will provide selected quotes from the floor debate.
Audrey T. Leath