Coming: bigger US role in schools

Legislation is solidifying in Congress to give Washington much more oversight of student academic achievement.

Education legislation now taking shape amid intense negotiations between Democratic lawmakers and the White House is likely to fundamentally alter the relationship between the federal government, the states, and America's 14,500 public school districts.

If the legislation passes Congress in coming weeks, which is by no means certain, it will give Washington a greater say in evaluating public-school performance.

This shift in the balance of power - the most significant in a generation - would come with the blessing of President Bush. But the idea of a big federal role is distasteful to many within his own party: For decades, Republican lawmakers have denounced any inkling of federal meddling in the "local" issue of public education.

What might soften the blow for Republicans is another provision embedded in the legislation. It would give states far more flexibility on spending the federal dollars they receive, allowing them to use the education money as they see fit.

This week, though, the bickering has been primarily among Senate Democrats, some of whom worry that students in low-income school districts will be short-changed if states get freer rein on spending. Even so, a consensus is slowly emerging on what is shaping up to be the most ambitious education-reform bill Congress has ever considered. Among the provisions:

* The US Department of Education would use billions in federal funding to encourage states to adopt "proven" educational strategies, such as instruction in phonics.

* States that accept federal education dollars must test students in Grades 3 through 8 annually in math and reading.

* Parents with children in failing schools will get financial help to make choices about how to improve their kids' education, such as hiring tutors or transferring to another school. (The House GOP bill also funds private-school tuition.)

* Washington has the responsibility of ensuring that reforms in the states are actually improving student achievement.

Some of these changes, such as annual state testing, would take effect quickly. Others, such as a $5 billion reading initiative, would take longer to filter into the nation's classrooms.

The biggest change will be how Washington confirms that its dollars are well spent. Currently, states and school districts must show "compliance" with the requirements of more than 50 narrowly targeted programs: Were the funds used for the purpose for which they were designated?

Under the new system, states could use federal funds where they are most needed. At the same time, a broad national test - the National Assessment of Educational Progress is to be adapted to confirm whether the gains that may show up on state tests are real. If not, federal funds may be withdrawn.

It's that shift that gives Washington a stronger role in education. If Congress passes this bill, the Education Department becomes more than a dispenser of funding. It would also ask - and answer - this question: Did US funds lift student achievement?

House Republicans don't want to buck Mr. Bush on his top legislative priority, but they are reluctant to let Washington use a single testing instrument to check up on states.

The challenge for Bush, who campaigned on his record of raising student achievement in Texas, has been how to convert those gains into a national strategy without trampling on rights of states. Early on, Bush borrowed a formula already proposed by New Democrats, who were challenging their own party's orthodoxy on education. These New Democrats, including Sens. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Evan Bayh of Indiana, wanted to do more than fund programs for poor students at ever higher levels. They called, too, for more flexibility for states to use federal funds in ways that better met local needs.

For mainstream Democrats, targeting funds to specific programs was a guarantee that money would reach poor students. But in the runup to this week's debate, key Democrats like Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts agreed to much of this proposal, on the condition that funding be much higher.

"We don't want to have the testing, see the need, and then leave the children wanting," he said last week. "Education is the president's priority and it's our priority, too. I'm confident that we can reach agreement."

Meanwhile, the president is reshaping the Department of Education to carry out the new law. He has moved the education-policy team that produced the Texas "miracle" to the Education Department here and supplemented it with like-minded people, including Secretary Rod Paige, former superintendent of Houston public schools.

Since its inception, the Education Department has worked closely with teachers unions and educators and, as a result, funded a broad range of education strategies. Early signs are that the revamped department will sharply narrow its focus to Bush's priorities.

As in Texas, the president brings a powerful ally to this effort: businesses. Business groups have been key players in education reforms in states like Texas and North Carolina since the mid-1980s. Now their attention is turning to the national level.

"We're very concerned that there be a new way of thinking about accountability," says Susan Traiman of the Education Initiative of the Business Roundtable, an organization of CEOs. "It's important to be able to get a better idea of what we're getting for the federal investment in education."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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