WASHINGTON — THE education summit beginning in Charlottesville, Va., today between President Bush and all 50 governors is a leap toward national goals in public education, which has traditionally been steadfastly a state and local concern. This is only the third time in history that a president has called together the nation's governors on a single subject. The first was Theodore Roosevelt on conservation. The second was Franklin Roosevelt on the Depression.
The third, convened by a man who promised to become the ``education president,'' comes at a time when frustration is spreading over the lack of measurable progress in the school reforms of the 1980s.
The purpose of this meeting, as negotiated by the White House and National Governors' Association, is to agree on a process by which national goals and performance standards for the nation's schools can eventually be set.
The problem, as the White House sees it, is straightforward: In the 1980s, education spending has risen 30 percent in real-dollar terms, while neither the number of graduates nor test scores have risen significantly.
Roger Porter - whose West Wing office is the busy crossroads for nearly all White House domestic policy - sometimes says that the 1980s ought to be called the decade of education spending.
Not education reform, progress, or achievement. Just spending.
Americans now spend $353 billion a year on education, he says, more than on any other government activity.
As the chief White House broker of education policy, Dr. Porter's concern is to increase the return on investment in schools by demanding results.
Urgency has grown as Americans increasingly look at their society in international terms. No other country spends as much per student on education as the United States. Yet in math and science, Porter says, American students have fallen substantially behind those in other industrialized countries by about eighth grade.
The comparisons can be misleading, because American education is more universal than in most other countries. ``Our smart kids are as smart as their smart kids,'' says Brian Rowan, an associate professor of education at Michigan State University.
Still, economic competitiveness is a driving force behind the push for results in education.
The business community consensus, says Alan Magazine, president of the Council on Competitiveness, which includes the chief executives of Fortune 1000 companies, is that education is ``the single most important competitiveness issue we face.''
The president is following in the footsteps here of the nation's governors, who have been working more than two years now on national goals for public schools.
The governors and the president appear to be mostly thinking along the same lines about schools - stressing more flexibility for individual schools and school districts to find what works and more accountability for showing results.
Although a majority of the governors are Democrats, few if any partisan lines appear in their views on schools. ``On this issue, you wouldn't know who was a Republican and who was a Democrat,'' says Ted Sizer, a Brown University professor and a popular education theorist.
It even appears that education is one issue where Mr. Bush will not get beaten up on by Democrats - at least among the governors - for trying to show leadership without spending money.
Much of the president's role in education is necessarily one of persuasion, example, and incentive. Less than 7 percent of public school funding comes from the government. States pay about half the cost of schools. The rest comes from local school districts.
Educators' response to the summit agenda is decidedly mixed - some real enthusiasm mixed with considerable skepticism.
The skepticism begins with no educators on the guest list at the education summit. The meeting will mostly consist of closed-door workshops attended by 16 or 17 governors in each group, moderated by a Bush administration Cabinet member, with Bush moving from group to group.
Most educators are less interested in more flexibility than in more federal funding, such as for Head Start early education programs that are only reaching 18 percent of eligible children, according to Gary Marx of the American Association of School Administrators.
Some are skeptical because Bush has shown little interest in education during his career or his presidency up to this point and his secretary of education, Lauro Cavazos, has shown virtually no public profile.
The education professionals are especially wary that elected officials, in rallying for results, will grasp at the national tests of basic skills as yardsticks.
As test scores have figured larger in the politics of schools during the 1980s, educators have come to see that the tests are not measuring the higher-level thinking abilities that students need. Further, the need to show good test scores begins to shape what schools teach - away from the thinking and comprehension skills that the tests don't measure.
Such testing is widely discredited, says one education consultant, ``among people who understand it. It's not among the people who make our lives miserable,'' meaning elected officials.
In the past three years, educators have been developing far more sophisticated testing that ``measures things we care about,'' says consultant and testing expert Grant Wiggins.
Various states are trying out such tests on subjects from writing to math and science. But they are all more expensive and labor-intensive than the standardized multiple-choice tests now in the field, so they require a more serious political commitment to serious testing.
Even if politics can promote facile responses, the traditional willingness of elected officials to leave the running of schools to education professionals is fading fast, says Chester Finn, a Vanderbilt University professor and former aide to William Bennett when he was education secretary.
``This summit is just as conspicuous a proof as I've seen that that old shibboleth is gone,'' he says.
Not all educators mind. Superintendent Jim Wilsford of Orangeburg, S.C., School District Five insists that only a national effort can set education moving. He recalls the math and science drive of the late 1950s, driven by competition with the Soviet Sputnik program. That involved only minimal federal funding, he notes, ``but it was the result of the whole nation moving in unison.''