Back to basics: schools

Bush and Democrats find common ground on accountability but not school vouchers.

Call the new education plan unveiled at the White House yesterday a triumph of modest expectations.

For half a century, American education policy has been driven by the big leap. Beat the Russians. Be first in the world in science and math by the year 2000. (US high-school seniors still rank below average in both.)

The plan that President Bush is bringing to Congress targets a more limited - but still highly elusive - objective: Make sure every child in an American public school can read.

That's a tough goal. Some 38 percent of fourth-graders can't puzzle out a simple text. Those numbers soar among poor children - 64 percent of black students and 60 percent of Hispanics fall below the "basic" reading level on the National Assessment of Academic Progress (NAEP).

The Bush strategy - which has much in common with a competing plan offered by New Democrats - is an attempt to put basic literacy at the center of American education policy. Not crumbling schools. Not class size. Not size and number of federal programs.

In addition to a reading initiative, the Bush blueprint provides funding for proven educational strategies and focuses on reducing bureaucracy and empowering parents. States and localities can determine their own means of measuring student improvement, but Washington will require that a sample of fourth- and eighth-grade students be tested in NAEP reading and math every year to serve as a check on state measures. (Currently, these tests are conducted every four years.)

If schools fail, they will first be assisted, then corrected. If after three years those schools still fail, students who attend them may use federal money to transfer to a better public or private school or receive those funds for tutoring.

The Bush plan gives schools more funds - and flexibility in how to use them - in exchange for proof that students are learning. It's that bargain that gives Washington an edge to leverage improvements in public schools, especially in failing or "underperforming" schools.

New Democrats launched a similar plan yesterday. Both plans collapse some 50 federal programs into more flexible pools of money to be spent on objectives such as improving teacher quality, English proficiency, and choice of schools.

Most notably, both also include consequences for failure to improve student learning. In the past, states and local school districts were required to demonstrate that schools had complied with federal requirements to be eligible for funding. Now, they must demonstrate that the money is improving student learning.

"After 35 years, Democrats and Republicans are finally reaching agreement that some fundamental change is needed," says Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and an adviser to the Bush education team. "People are no longer just defending the status quo."

When a similar plan was introduced in the Senate, it won only 13 votes. But sponsors say similar proposals have a much stronger shot this year.

New Democratic spokesmen insist there is "significant bipartisan agreement" on education reform between the two parties. They point, in particular, to the basic goal of getting federal money to the schools and students that need it most.

Unlike previous GOP education plans, the Bush proposal doesn't just give block grants to states to use in any way they choose. It keeps the focus on student achievement goals, especially for poor students.

Both Bush and New Democrats provide a transition period for states and local school districts to correct problems in failing schools.

Both direct new resources into failing schools, including incentives for more public school choice. And both give the Department of Education a higher profile in providing technical assistance to schools.

But serious disagreements persist over what consequences should follow from failure. At the same time, Democrats say that inclusion of a voucher provision in the Bush plan could scuttle the proposal in Congress.

"I don't think there's a consensus in Congress for vouchers," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, on ABC's "Good Morning America" yesterday.

Others say the differences are overblown. "Vouchers are a useless ideological fight over an ill-conceived program, at a time when the stars are lining up for these reforms," says Andrew Rotherham, of the Washington-based Progressive Policy Institute, who helped draft the New Democrat plan.

Teachers unions - key players in crafting education legislation during the Clinton years - say they are willing to work with the new Bush administration on many aspects of education reform, but will throw the full weight of their organizations into blocking vouchers.

"We're encouraged that the Bush package includes a strong reading initiative….But we will vigorously oppose vouchers," says Janet Bass at the American Federation of Teachers. "It diverts taxpayer dollars away from public schools that need help."

"The plan unveiled today relies on a failed political gimmick," adds Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, the No. 1 teachers union.

But Bush spokesmen say the president will fight for this option. Republicans give him a shot at winning converts. "There's a huge difference between what is being discussed now and previous sweeping voucher proposals. We're now talking about Vouchers Lite," says Rep. Michael Castle (R) of Delaware.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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