Bush education plan meets new foe: GOP governors

Concerned they might lose funding, governors lobbied to ease the requirement of proficiency within 10 years.

The key players in reshaping federal policy on education may well turn out to be the nation's governors, especially Republicans.

In the past few weeks, governors have been scrutinizing every aspect of the emerging legislation. And while they don't like to talk about it, they're changing its direction and content.

One of the big quiet voices in this discussion is Gov. John Engler (R) of Michigan. After a meeting between President Bush and Governor Engler last month, White House negotiators suddenly backed off what had been a linchpin of the Bush education strategy: requiring states to ensure that all students become academically proficient in the next 10 years.

By Washington standards, this was a modest objective. The last President Bush had made it a goal for American students to be "first in the world in math and science" by the Year 2000. (US students still rank below the world average.)

But unlike previous exercises in educational goalmaking, this law would have teeth. States and school districts that failed to meet the new standard for "adequate yearly progress" would face losing federal funds for education.

That's why governors like Engler are taking such a close look at how "adequate yearly progress" is defined. In discussions with Mr. Bush, the Michigan governor urged easing the requirement of proficiency within 10 years.

"Once you tie resources to it, you could create a perverse incentive to lower standards, and states with high standards [like Michigan] could look bad," says Scott Jenkins, Engler's education coordinator.

The original version of the Senate bill required states to develop a plan to ensure that all students, "including those who are racial or ethnic minorities or from low-income families," reach academic proficiency within 10 years.

The revised version relaxes that goal to include "moving each of the groups toward this 10 year goal every year." In addition, state progress will be calculated by a complex formula that weighs the progress of various groups over time.

Critics charge that the new accountability formula undermines the goal of ensuring high achievement for all students, by allowing schools to obscure achievement gaps among groups. Schools will continue to get federal funds, without demonstrating that poor students are reaching the standard of proficiency.

"The new formula won't guarantee that low-income and minority kids reach the proficient level, nor will it guarantee that achievement gaps will close," says Amy Wilkins, policy analyst at the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that works with schools to improve achievement for poor students.

The White House and Senate negotiators say they made the change after it became clear that the original language would have resulted in unacceptably high numbers of failing schools. Senate projections showed that even in states that were acknowledged leaders in school reform - Texas, North Carolina, and Connecticut - large numbers of districts would fail a standard of proficiency for all students.

"We talked about this question for months: How do we respect states' prerogatives, yet insist that their standards are rigorous? What we came up with is more reasonable," says Sandy Kress, senior adviser to the president on education, who negotiated the changes with senators.

The change marks a big victory for governors, who will bear major responsibility for carrying out the new strategy. "We want to have a system that is rigorous, but also realistic. You don't want to characterize as failing schools that are actually doing better every year," says Sen. Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana, a former governor.

Governors are also urging more federal funding for testing, to avoid what many call another "vast, unfunded mandate."

Even as revised, the new education strategy will be a stretch for many states. Only 15 states now test students annually in reading and math in the early grades. Only six states currently report student results by race, ethnicity, or income, as would be required by the new law.

Most important, many states are not finding the resources to help the schools they have already identified as failing. Only about 40 percent of schools that have been identified as in need of improvement are currently getting more resources from states, according to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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