Education offers Bush his first test

He's already pushing a school-reform plan - and trying to sell it to both sides on the Hill.

The first test of how a new Bush administration fares with a divided Congress will come early and in an area where the president-elect claims special competence: education.

It's an issue that George W. Bush knows cold and talks about with passion. He ran in part on his record of improving student achievement in Texas, especially among poor and minority students. Now, Mr. Bush says it will be the first proposal out of his White House.

To be sure, he's picked a thorny issue to tackle, diving headlong into the briar patch of school vouchers, local versus federal control, and performance testing. In the last Congress, Republicans and Democrats clashed repeatedly over education, and in the end, even failed to reauthorize the major federal law affecting America's schoolchildren, for the first time in 35 years.

But a consensus is emerging that Bush's strategy - more freedom and resources for public schools in exchange for greater school accountability for results - might win support from both parties in the new Congress.

It could also open the door for a new age of entrepreneurship in public education. With a Republican soon to be back in the White House, legions of "edupreneurs" are dusting off, or ginning up, proposals to tap into the nation's $740 billion education market.

"This issue has great potential for bipartisan cooperation," says Rep. George Miller (D) of California, ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee and one of 19 congressmen who met with Bush to discuss education Thursday.

"His inclination is to go all-out, right from the start, and to look for a comprehensive victory," adds Sen.-elect Tom Carper (D) of Delaware, who also attended the bipartisan meeting in Austin.

In the past, Republicans have argued that Washington should trim back its role in the nation's schools by reducing spending, abolishing the Department of Education, or simply leaving more decisions up to the states. Bush , though, would expand Washington's role, by requiring states to measure student achievement as a condition for federal dollars.

The Bush strategy appeals to many Democrats, because it focuses on improving schools for poor children, which has been their traditional focus. Indeed, last year, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut broke with mainstream Democrats to propose a similar plan. It won the support of 10 other moderate Democrats, but no Republicans.

The presence of a Republican president could change that GOP calculus. At Bush's urging, the GOP dropped the clause to abolish the US Department of Education in the party platform this year. And GOP centrists say the Bush proposal for more flexibility at the local level will appeal to many conservatives.

"There's a real basis there for trying to achieve an early bipartisan agreement [on education]," said Senator Lieberman in a joint press briefing with Vice President-elect Dick Cheney last week.

But a sticking point for many Democrats - and the teachers unions that support them - is the possibility that federal funds could be used to support school vouchers. Critics, who soundly beat back voucher initiatives in California and Michigan in November, say vouchers will drain resources from public schools.

As a candidate, Bush called for turning federal funds over to parents in cases where failing schools do not improve. Parents could use the money for tutors or to offset the costs of moving children to another school, including private and parochial schools.

However, in last week's private meeting with congressional centrists, Bush played down the "V"-word, participants said. That shift avoids what many centrists called a "red flag" or "nonstarter" in the president-elect's program.

"Vouchers came up many times, and he said it was a matter for local/state determination - that he was focused on improving public schools," says Mr. Miller.

Nonetheless, supporters of more choice in public education see expanding opportunities in a Bush administration. Schools forced to demonstrate improvement - fast - will be on the lookout for new educational services, such as teacher training, online remedial programs, or whole-school management. And entrepreneurs are already lining up to provide it.

"What we're seeing now is a demand for change and results. People are starting companies, and hiring companies, and looking under every stone," says Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform.

Private companies, which now account for 10 percent of the $740 billion education market, are making inroads into the K-12 market. The failure of public schools is opening up a "big investment opportunity" for new entrepreneurs, say analysts at Merrill Lynch, a New York brokerage house, in a 1999 report.

"What we need from the Bush administration is financial support for school districts to actually deal with the new demands being made on them," says Denis Doyle of SchoolNet.com.

"There's a tremendous amount of energy in the for-profit sector in education," says former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean (R), who is working with a business consortium to improve Newark schools.

"For years, if a school was terrible ... every principal got a raise, every superintendent got a raise, and every teacher got a raise," says Mr. Kean, who is being cited as a prospect for Education secretary. "The only people suffering the consequences were the children. That's intolerable."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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