Experts Scrutinize Bush's Education Reform Package

PRESIDENT Bush's new education reform package showed immediate bipartisan appeal last week to a nation widely convinced its public schools are not doing their job. But as the haze of hype over the America 2000 reform strategy began to clear over the weekend, some problematic points began to appear to education experts scouring the plan for how it might be put into practice.

"There is enormous relief that they've started" to respond with reforms to a problem that has been defined, studied, and bemoaned for the past decade, says Maureen DiMarco, California's secretary of child development and education.

From that common ground, echoed universally in business, education, and government communities, debate will begin.

Ms. DiMarco, who attended the White House briefing for governors about the reform, explains that the administration has "only been working on tracks 1 and 2 and it really shows in the book [the strategy proposal]." Shot through with competitive free-market principles, tracks 1 and 2 are the heart of the reform and focus largely on these proposals:

Under the concept of "choice," public schools would have to compete with private - and perhaps parochial schools - for students and the federal funds that follow them.

Private business would fund a $150 million to $200 million research and development program to design new schools.

Business and private community groups would compete for $1 million federal grants for the creation of an experimental school in each congressional district.

National standards in basic school subjects - and the tests to measure them - would be encouraged and considered in competition for federal funding, college admissions, and even hiring.

John Chubb, a Brookings Institution analyst who has written a book in favor of choice in education, says he believes the choice element in the reform package will founder in Congress.

The package calls for federal education funds for disadvantaged students to be allowed to follow them to whatever public, private, or parochial school they choose. This is controversial because inner-city public schools depend largely on these funds and could be hurt if students took the money elsewhere.

Other experts say that the report does not address broadly enough the issue of readiness to learn. Readiness is one of the national education goals set by the president's 1989 education summit of governors. Readiness is linked to family stability and social issues schools have no control over, say experts.

"They are shoveling an avalanche with a teaspoon," says DiMarco of the reform package's lack of specifics on readiness. While the strategy's rhetoric makes note of the importance of the 91 percent of a child's time that is not spent in the classroom, she says, "I do think this is where they should have started."

It is widely accepted by education experts that parental involvement is the single largest factor in a child's education success. But with the breakdown of the family and the poverty associated with single-parent families, a quarter of all children are believed at risk of school failure, according to the National Commission on Children. As a result, schools become the receptacles of social problems from health to hunger, but with no mandate to solve those problems.

Given this, says DiMarco, "I promise you that if we just send children to the classroom who are ready to learn, you wouldn't have to change anything else."

Still another concern about the reforms is that implicit in the president's heavy emphasis on private business involvement in education is the marginalization of the education establishment which runs the nation's 110,000 schools.

For example, members of the Conference of Large City Schools Superintendents, in town for their annual meeting last week, were largely in favor of the reform package. But they were hopping mad at the blatant snubbing they received from the Department of Education and the White House while business leaders were called in to rub elbows at the White House during unveiling of the plan. "School people feel badly abused that [the administration] is not recognizing that they see the problems of the country usu ally 13 years before they're full-blown," DiMarco explains.

Answering to some of the reservations raised about the proposals, deputy assistant Secretary of Education Bruno Manno explains that the reform package is meant to be a spark of change.

The model schools - and the research and development behind them - may well be the proving ground of issues such as choice and delivery of social services in the schools. But that, he says, is for local communities to determine.

Mr. Manno, who headed development of the reforms package, says the thrust of the package is "to unleash America's creative genius, analogous to the R&D [research and development] effort to go to the moon or invent the bomb ... to reinvent what the school is."

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