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Jewish World Review April 26, 2001 / 4 Iyar 5761

Morton Kondracke

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Consumer Reports

After reviewing "nation's report card" blacks should ask why they voted for Clinton -- THE latest statistics validate President Bush's campaign charge that the country is in an "education recession." Now it's up to him and Congress to get us out of it.

It looked as though they were cooperating to do just that, but a much vaunted agreement to combine quality reforms with added resources may be in danger of breaking apart. That would be tragic.

It's vital that, beginning this week, Congress pass - and Bush put into action -a new education initiative, given the dismal results just registered in the National Assessment of Education Progress.

The so-called "nation's report card" showed no improvement whatsoever in fourth-graders' reading ability from 1992 to 2000. More shocking, a full 63 percent of black students and 58 percent of Hispanics performed at "below basic" level, meaning they were unable to get any sense of what they'd read.

That result constitutes a failing grade for the Clinton administration and should cause African-Americans to wonder just why they gave such unfailing political support to Bill Clinton.

Basically, Clinton administration education policy consisted of reducing the cost of college, throwing more money at K-12 education and, on behalf of teachers unions, fighting Republican voucher proposals.

Clinton fancied himself a reformer and supported higher standards, testing and charter schools, but his administration never denied funding to any state, school district or individual school for failing its pupils - as manifestly happened all over the country, especially in poverty areas.

According to the NAEP - a sample exam that's the closest thing to a "national test" that Congress has ever permitted - only 32 percent of fourth-graders were "proficient" or better in reading, while more than two-thirds were not.

Breaking the results down by race, 40 percent of whites, 46 percent of Asian-Americans 12 percent of African-Americans and 16 percent of Hispanics were proficient.

If that isn't a firebell for Congress as it takes up reauthorization of the massive Elementary and Secondary Education Act, it's hard to imagine what could be.

Bush's Education secretary, Rod Paige, used the results to proclaim, legitimately, that "After spending $125 billion of Title 1 money over the last 25 years" for the disadvantaged, "we have virtually nothing to show for it."

Bush, Paige said, has set a goal that every child should be able to read by third grade, has budgeted $5 billion over five years for a national reading initiative - and could be judged by future NAEP results as to whether his plans are succeeding.

Bush also plans an infusion of educational substance into the much revered Head Start program, which over the years has devolved primarily into a day care and parent-employment program.

As Paige noted, research shows that upper-income youngsters start school with a vocabulary of 20,000 words, but lower-income pupils know only 4,000 words. Head Start and elementary schools should help close that gap. Instead, it widens.

When Congress left town for its spring recess, it looked as if a deal was done to combine the rigorous standards, testing and accountability standards that Bush and other reformers favor with the additional money that Democrats always demand.

On the surface, Bush's new budget calls for an 11.5 percent increase for education over the next fiscal year - whereas the rest of the government is held to 4 percent - emphasizing the priority he gives to education.

However, Democrats charge that Bush counted in advanced funding already appropriated by the last Congress, so that new funding comes to just 5.5 percent -far short of the average 12 percent increases in education funding approved over the past five years.

As leading liberal Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) claimed last week, "We have agreed to the President's testing proposals, to greater accountability for schools and to an enhanced reading initiative for young children." But, he continued, "It's nonsense to think that we can reform our schools on the cheap. ... Surely in a time of record budget surpluses, we can afford to provide schools with the help they need to teach our children better."

Democrats, including reformers such as Sens. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and Evan Bayh (Ind.), favor spending $15 billion over five years on Title 1 programs for poor children, whereas Bush is budgeting $9.1 billion.

As that portion of the deal gets wobbly, there's a danger that House conservatives, who favor no-strings aid to states, will back out of their agreement to impose testing requirements and target funding to poor children.

Republicans are also agitated because the deal allows too few schools and school districts to opt out of federal requirements in a test of local flexibility.

This historic reform deal deserves to be patched back together this week -with adequate funding - so that the country can get out of its "education recession." If U.S. children keep getting failing grades, so will their political leaders.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.


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