A unity emerges on schools

Both parties agree federal government now has a role in schools: quality cop.

A half-century fight over US education policy - dating from the days of forced integration and continuing as late as the 1994 GOP Contract with America - appears to be, if not over, at least in a truce.

While serious disputes remain, the new cease-fire is built on a belief, increasingly shared in both parties, that the federal role in public education should stress one overriding issue: quality.

A conspicuous calm was seen this week during Senate confirmation hearings for Roderick Paige, President-elect Bush's choice for Education secretary. As Superintendent of Houston public schools, Dr. Paige brings a record of improving education quality, especially for poor, black, and Hispanic students.

Queried on the most divisive issues in education, including vouchers and high-stakes testing, Paige reduced many responses to a single, nonideological principle: "Show me the results." For much of the past half century, America's public schools were the venue in which Democrats largely fought the battle over race - and then over poverty and access for the disabled.

Republicans and Southern Democrats (who later switched parties) resisted turning local schools into a battleground for national causes. By 1994, when Republicans took back the House of Representatives, a pledge to abolish the Education Department was a rallying cry.

That talk is over. The next Education secretary takes over a department that has won back its right to exist.

"When I took over as secretary, we were fighting for our survival," said outgoing Education Secretary Richard Riley in an interview with the Monitor. "Now, a few years later, education is the No. 1 priority for both parties."

This shift didn't emerge from negotiations in Washington. In many states, like Texas and North Carolina, it began with a mobilization of the local business community, which was alarmed at the low skills of recent graduates. Governors and state legislatures picked up the cry. By the 1990s, with encouragement from both the Bush and Clinton White Houses, 49 states had adopted new standards for schools and tests to measure whether those standards were being met.

"What we've seen for the last 17 years is a slow, painful, and reasonably steady redirection of federal and state and local resources in the direction of results," says Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation here. A Republican adviser, he credits the Clinton administration with keeping up a drumbeat of emphasis on results and accountability.

"That's certainly the direction the Bush team is planning to push," he adds.

But party congressional delegations were still on a different page. Democrats in Congress argued that inequities in resources in local schools had to be addressed before new accountability measures took hold. Republicans focused on vouchers and tax credits to give families the choice of opting out of public schools.

But in Campaign 2000, both leading presidential candidates embraced the principles of standards-based reform. Both urged using federal dollars to leverage student achievement.

"This is an important development," says John Jennings, director of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy. "To bring about change in such a vast and decentralized country, you need a consistent message from the top over a long period of time."

In Houston, Paige was a strong supporter of standards-based reform. He tested students early and often, moved principals to performance-based contracts, and gave students and teachers extra support to meet the standards. He also worked closely with Texas governors and the local business community, which helped finance new training for teachers.

Houston's signature early-reading program identified children in kindergarten who were at risk of failing to learn to read, gave them smaller classes, and trained all their teachers in research-based methods. The enhanced training follows students as they move up through classes. This summer, thousands of second-grade teachers will be trained in the new regime.

"There really is a vision [in Texas], and that vision has to do with accountability, the use of data to monitor progress, and providing tools and training to meet new goals," says Douglas Carnine, director of the National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators at the University of Oregon, who helped develop the Texas system.

National teachers unions - who campaigned hard against Bush - are already expressing an interest in a Bush reading initiative, likely to be his first legislation.

Vouchers, however, could be a stumbling block for the new administration. Bush campaigned on a limited voucher program, and his education nominee kept open the option.

Paige said parents of children in failing schools should be given fresh choices: "transferring to another public school or using their share of federal funds to pay for another option, including tutoring, a charter school, or a non-public school." But he also described himself as "passionate" that public schools can work.

It's that conviction that Democrats chose to emphasize in their discussion of the nominee, who would be the first Education secretary to have worked in schools.

"He has a very positive attitude when he talks about public schools," says Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, who chaired the hearings. "We don't expect a big voucher program to be the first thing out of a Bush administration. If you look at what Bush has done in Texas, you'll see there's a wide area of issues we can agree on," he adds.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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