Selected Floor Debate on Ehlers' National Science Education Act As reported in FYI FYI#130, Rep. Vern Ehlers' (R-MI) National Science Education Act (H.R. 4271) was brought to the House floor but not passed last week. The bill enjoyed broad bipartisan support, had passed the Science Committee unanimously in July, and was supported by many organizations including the American Association of Physics Teachers, the American Astronomical Society, and the American Physical Society. However, in recent days a number of Members had raised concerns about the constitutionality of one provision. The provision in question would make private schools, as well as public schools, eligible for federal funds to hire master teachers. Because of this issue, Members were reluctant to approve the bill under a parliamentary procedure called "suspension of the rules," and thus, while not rejected, it was not agreed to either. Selected quotes from the floor discussion follow. This is not a complete transcription of the debate. Much has been left out, but it is intended to give some flavor of the discussion:
EDDIE BERNICE JOHNSON (D-TX): "After a comprehensive effort and a set of hearings of the Committee on Science organized by the gentleman from Michigan [Ehlers], which examined all aspects of K-12 science and math education, we finally did come to an agreement on a comprehensive bill, a bill that incorporates a range of proposals from several Members on both sides of the aisle and addresses ways to improve teacher training, develops more effective educational materials and teaching practices to improve student learning, and establishes programs to attract more women and minorities to careers in science and technology. I am concerned, however, about a provision that allows grants to private elementary and middle schools. I support the provisions of 4271, but I have a concern about the constitutionality of this provision.... What we have today is simply an effort to get public dollars funneled into private schools. We simply must not do that in this body."
VERN EHLERS (R-MI): "Let me clarify this issue. First of all, this is typical language that we have incorporated in this bill. We are not breaking new ground. The National Science Foundation at present does give grants to private schools.... Be that as it may, note that the letter that has been circulated saying that this program may raise a constitutional question, is based on a 1971 Supreme Court decision which has been superseded by several other decisions, and I think this issue deserves considerable study before one could conclude that there is a constitutional problem."
JOHNSON: "I guess the commitment that I want is that if it is determined to be unconstitutional, could the language be made so that if it is determined to be unconstitutional then we can remove this provision? Because we need the rest of this bill, and we need it rapidly. I have been pleading for this for over 2 years to move forward, but what I do not want to do is dilute public dollars further in supporting private schools..."
JAMES SENSENBRENNER (R-WI): "I respectfully disagree with the assertions that have been made that the section in question is unconstitutional. The gentlewoman from Texas [Johnson] cites a 1971 U.S. Supreme Court case. There have been two more recent cases...[which] said that a statute similar to what is being proposed here is constitutional if it does not result in religious indoctrination, it does not define its recipients by reference to religion and it does not create excessive entanglement between government and religion. In each of these three instances, the statute does not do so.... I think that there is a sufficient question on the constitutionality that we should not pull this provision out of the bill.... But also it is a standard rule of statutory construction that sections that are declared unconstitutional are severable if they can be severed from the rest of the bill. So I think that the concern of the gentlewoman from Texas is really unfounded."
LYNN WOOLSEY (D-CA): "H.R. 4271 still includes a poison pill, a poison pill that no Member who cares about public education in America wants to vote for. In section 4, H.R. 4271 will give Federal funds directly to private and religious schools to hire teachers. This appears to violate our Constitution, and it absolutely takes precious dollars away from public schools. It would be easy to change this provision. In fact, our colleagues on the other side of the aisle were asked to do just that before the bill came before us today on the floor, but they have refused."
SENSENBRENNER: "Did the gentlewoman propose an amendment during Committee on Science consideration to remove the section that she objects to now?"
WOOLSEY: "I did not, until it came to my attention more clearly."
ROBERT SCOTT (D-VA): "It should be noted that private religious schools would be able to discriminate on the basis of religion when they hire teachers with Federal funds, and that is particularly absurd on a science bill, to think that a private school could fire a master teacher, hired with Federal funds, because if that master teacher it was found believed in evolution, if teaching evolution is inconsistent with the teaching and tenets of the private religious school.... Mr. Speaker, public funds should benefit public schools, where more than 90 percent of our students go; and, therefore, I urge the defeat of this legislation."
SENSENBRENNER: "Now, if the gentleman from Virginia's argument is valid, then all of the awards that President Clinton has passed out in the last 8 years to private and parochial school teachers, because they have done a good job in the classroom, never should have been paid and are unconstitutional."
JOHNSON "There is no question about any provision in this bill, except that provision that allows for the payment of teachers for private schools.... If the gentleman from Michigan [Ehlers] could assure us that this provision would not jeopardize this bill and it could be corrected before it is signed into law or vetoed or whatever, then I have no problem with the bill."
SENSENBRENNER: "At no point prior to 48 hours ago have the objections, such as those raised by the gentlewoman from Texas [Johnson] and the gentleman from Virginia [Scott] been brought up. This bill has widespread support."
At the end of the debate, Rep. Johnson demanded a roll call vote. The bill received 215 yea votes and 156 nay votes, which was insufficient for the two-thirds majority vote needed to pass it under a suspension of the rules.
Audrey T. Leath