Schools are being allowed to decide how to spend federal cash, which could mean not hiring more teachers, reports Jon Marcus.
One of President Clinton's key education pledges - to hire 100,000 teachers to reduce class sizes - appears to have been scuppered by sweeping reforms which will allow schools to decide how billions of dollars of federal cash are to be spent.
Finally settling down to work after the prolonged and partisan impeachment fight, Republicans and Democrats in Congress joined to approve the Education Flexibility Partnership Act which would largely allow schools to use the federal education money as they see fit.
But it soon became evident that the Republican-backed Bill would also mean schools did not have to hire teachers to reduce class sizes - a requirement pushed by Democrats and passed by Congress just last year - and the legislation began to seem a deft strategy by the Republicans to hijack education as an election issue.
Ed-Flex would waive existing tight restrictions on the way an estimated $15 billion a year (pound;9 billion) in federal government grant money can be spent by schools, as long as they continue to improve.
For example, money sent to the schools for science and maths could be spent on reading. In theory, schools would use the money based on their particular needs.
The Bill would also let schools use the windfall appropriated last year for badly-needed newteachers on other educationprogrammes instead. That is the provision that splits the parties.
The political gamesmanship brought into focus the stark ideological differences between the parties over education. Republicans favour a smaller role for the federal government, while Democrats want more control from Washington.
Senator Edward Kennedy, a leading democrat, told reporters: "The Republicans have pulled an anti-education hat-trick." Saying the Republican plan would "effectively kill the commitment Congress made last year for smaller class size", Senator Kennedy tied up the vote in the Senate for a week, but the Republicans ultimately prevailed.
President Clinton accused the Republicans of using the Bill "to undermine one of our most important educational achievements: an initiative to hire 100,000 well-prepared teachers to reduce class size in the early grades to a national average of 18".
However, Mr Clinton stopped short of threatening a veto, though he said he would try to restore the provision for new teachers.
"'Both parties view (education) as a crucible for politics this year, and neither wants to give the other the upper hand," sighed Republican Congressman Michael Castle, a co-sponsor of the Bill.