A Test for US School Reform

Hard to remember, but school reform was President Bush's top priority before Sept. 11. Now, nearly three months later, he may soon have a bill on his desk that appears to hold local public educators accountable.

But don't ring the school bells quite yet. While a deal has been brokered in Congress on linking federal funding with the testing of all public school children, the record shows an embarrassing lapse in federal enforcement for the last big educational reform.

In 1994, Congress gave states five years to set up learning standards and to create tests to measure whether students had met them. Failure to meet those rules would result in cutting Title I dollars - the largest portion of federal funding for schools.

But only 28 states have met the federal standards, three years after the deadline. Part of the reason is stiff political opposition to school accountability in many states, led by teachers' unions. But the main reason was a weakness of will to enforce the law under the Clinton administration, and so far, under Mr. Bush, too.

Which all goes to prove that maybe top-down accountability enforced from Washington on local schools may not be the cure-all that candidate Bush hoped for. Who will hold the US Education Department accountable for enforcing a new reform law? The record speaks for itself.

States remain the primary agent of change for education reform, as long as they are sensitive to parents of public school children. Those states that have mandatory testing are seeing some positive results. That, more than empty federal demands, will spur more reform of schools.

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