Jolting the Schools

PRESIDENT Bush's new education plan could give the nation's schools a needed jolt, after eight years of furious talk about reform and a modicum of action. The plan was forged by Education Secretary Lamar Alexander and his team of avid reformers. It favors the free-market model for schools already popular within the administration.

Programs that give parents a choice of where to enroll their children will be promoted even more vigorously. The report card on "choice" is still incomplete, though programs giving parents options among schools are under way in 29 states.

Advocates of choice say public schools that lose students will be forced to strengthen their programs. Skeptics question the impact of choice - will it only make poor schools poorer and mire some students even more hopelessly in mediocrity?

The secretary also wants to set up a grant program to fund a number of innovative public schools across the country. These schools would function outside the traditional school-district bureaucracy, building on successful experiments elsewhere and enlarging the choices available to parents and students.

The program would have the added purpose of recruiting the talents and resources of the business community. Business people concerned about a poorly prepared work force will, in theory, be more willing to invest in schools that have had to compete for grant money on the basis of creative approaches to learning.

Federal dollars, it's worth noting, account for only 6 percent of the US education bill. The money crunch is at the state and local levels. Schools from Massachusetts to California are facing wrenching cutbacks, and younger, highly motivated teachers are often the first to get pink slips. How will the new education chief deal with the fiscal drag on reform?

A national examination is another Alexander priority. This would provide a nationwide means of assessing educational performance - of teachers and schools as well as students.

Some argue that a national exam would only add to the bureaucratization of education and stifle creativity. The need for better measurement of school performance, and greater accountability, is hard to refute. But "national results" shouldn't eclipse "local control" as the dominant slogan of American education.

The national education goals set last year by President Bush and the governors remain a sound framework for action. The new plan, and the new secretary of education, should help provide the action.

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