Abducted Kids

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A spate of highly publicized child abductions and kidnappings over the summer spurred the Senate to pass legislation (S 2896) establishing a nationwide AMBER Alert system for notifying the public and police about missing children.

AMBER (America’s Missing Broadcast Emergency Response) is a voluntary program that broadcasts emergency alerts similar to weather bulletins for suspected cases of child abduction. Since its creation in 1996, the system has been credited with recovering 27 children nationwide.

Despite its effectiveness, bill sponsors said, most states have not implemented an AMBER Alert plan. There are about 55 plans around the country but only 18 are statewide. The bill would establish a national coordinator at the U.S. Department of Justice to expand the network and coordinate region-wide alerts, and to establish standards to determine when the alerts should be issued.

The bill also would establish a grant program to help states improve electronic message boards, training and education programs.

“This program will increase the odds that an abducted child will return to his or her family safely,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who introduced the bill with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas). “But importantly, it will deter potential abductors from taking a child in the first place.”

The original AMBER legislation was named in honor of Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old Texas girl kidnapped and murdered in 1996.

The bill moves to the House, where similar legislation (HR 5326) has been introduced.

Criminal Background Checks

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) is hoping bipartisanship will help secure passage of his legislation (S 1868) to create a system to conduct criminal background checks for volunteers and employees who work with youth and other vulnerable populations.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill by voice vote in May. Although the measure is a likely candidate for quick passage on the floor through unanimous consent, the bill has not moved since the spring.

“There has not been a whole lot of Judiciary Committee legislation getting to the floor,” a Biden aide said, because Republicans are blocking committee action to protest what they consider inaction on President Bush’s judicial nominees.

Education Moves Stall

House Republicans returned from the August recess last month looking to score political points on education, but were largely shut out as Democrats rallied to reject the GOP’s “Back to School” proposals.

The House first rejected a measure (HR 5203) that would have made several tax provisions for education expenses permanent.
Families can contribute up to $2,000 a year to education savings accounts, and can tap the funds tax-free for expenses like tuition, boarding and supplies at public and private schools. (Similar funds are run by the states for college tuition and expenses.)

The bill would have eliminated the 2010 expiration date and permitted families to use the accounts for home-schooling expenses. It failed, by a 213-188 vote, to get the two-thirds majority needed for passage.

Republicans said the accounts help more families save for college and education, while Democrats argued the provisions favor wealthy families who can already afford to send their children to private schools.

The bill would have cost an estimated $5.6 billion from fiscal 2003 through 2012.

Another education tax bill (HR 5193) offered by House Republicans was intended to benefit low-income families. Sponsored by Rep. Bob Schaffer (R-Colo.), the bill would have given families a $3,000 deduction for education expenses from kindergarten through high school, the same deduction now allowed for some higher education expenses.

The deduction would have been limited to families with one wage earner who makes $20,000 a year or two wage earners who make $40,000.

“This bill … provides a big financial boost to parents, who will have new resources through tax relief,” Schaffer said in a prepared statement.

The deductions were nothing more than “vouchers for private elementary and secondary schools,” House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) warned Democrats before bill debate.

Faced with the prospect of another losing effort, the Republican leadership pulled the bill from the floor before it was considered. Leaders said that up to 50 House members were absent due to Sept. 11 activities.

“We didn’t have the votes,” Schaffer spokesman Brad Keena said in an interview. “They [Democrats] won by virtue of not having a vote.” He said the bill could be revived by the end of this session.

House Republicans may soon bring to a vote another education bill, (HR 5091), which would increase from $5,000 to $17,500 the amount of student loans the government would pay off in exchange for the debtor teaching for five years in a low-income school. Although the bill would extend loan cancellation to some spouses and survivors of rescue and safety personnel killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, it would not apply to recent college graduates in the youth development field.

Youth advocates may push for similar treatment in the future, but it is not a priority now, said Irv Katz, president of the National Assembly of Health and Human Services and its National Collaboration for Youth. “It’s a great idea,” Katz said. “It’s not on the plate currently.”

Getting such a benefit for youth workers could be difficult, a former GOP congressional aide said.

“Look at the [National Education Association], look at the National PTA, and then look at the people who represent youth workers. In addition, look at the focus on education right now and look at the focus on youth work, and you have your answer,” said the former aide, who held positions with several key lawmakers involved in education policy. “Youth workers don’t have the visibility; they don’t have the clout.”

The bill is estimated to cost $205 million from fiscal 2003 through 2007.

Welfare Law Expires

On the non-education front, members from both parties in both chambers urged Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) to bring the welfare reauthorization bill (HR 4737) to the floor for action. The House completed its version in May, and the Senate Finance Committee approved the bill in July. The law authorizing the nation’s welfare programs was to expire Sept. 30.

The reauthorizing legislation could include another bill (S 2758) that would increase discretionary spending for the Child Care and Development Block Grant program from $2.1 billion to $3.1 billion. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee approved the bill last month.