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Jewish World Review May 22, 2001 / 29 Iyar 5761

Morton Kondracke

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Congress, Bush need to
improve education bills -- THE education bill working its way through Congress is neither a "sellout," as described by critics, nor the "90 percent success" lauded by the White House. It's a work in progress that needs to be improved. If it isn't, both Congress and President Bush -- especially Bush -- will have to answer for the continuing failure of American public schools to meet world-class standards.

The latest National Assessment of Education Progress showed no improvement in the reading ability of U.S. fourth-graders over the past eight years, and the new Third International Math and Science Study showed the United States made no overall progress in catching up to other countries.

The TIMSS report released in April showed that the best U.S. schools lead the world in math and science, but average ones lag in the middle of the pack, while our inner-city schools are among the worst in the industrialized world.

At the outset of the administration Bush proposed, and received bipartisan support for, a new reform agenda based on annual testing, tough accountability, parental choice options when schools fail, more state flexibility and more money.

However, as the House and Senate prepare to pass different education bills, the nation's most outspoken school reformers say Bush has compromised away his goals in the name of bipartisanship and getting credit for passing education legislation.

Conservatives claim he's sold out to Democrats on school choice, state flexibility and money. But Democrats and other reformers assert he's dropped rigorous testing and accountability standards for improving education for minorities and the poor.

Sandy Kress, Bush's White House education adviser, told me, "We think we've gotten an awful lot, 90 percent of what the President asked for." And, he added, "The fight isn't over" to improve the package in a House-Senate conference.

But Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., a member of the Education and the Workforce Committee, counters that "The bill went from being OK to bad" in committee "and will go from bad to worse in conference."

"The White House never fought for (state) flexibility and never fought for choice," Hoekstra said. "All they are fighting for is testing."

However, education reformer Chester Finn of the Manhattan Institute said that even testing requirements are "blurry," and Democrats charge that Bush is unwilling to spend enough to induce states to test rigorously. On the basis of interviews with experts across the spectrum, here's a list of the items that ought to be achieved if Congress and the president want this bill to truly improve U.S. education:

-- ADMINISTRATION GOALS: Bush needs to establish the standards by which he'll be judged. Kress said the standard should be "steady improvement," but a more definite benchmark would be consistently raising annual reading and math scores on the NAEP, particularly those of the disadvantaged.

-- CHOICE: The administration abandoned its original proposal to give parents vouchers to transfer their children to private schools when public schools fail. But Congress should approve a voucher experiment somewhere. The District of Columbia would be a good choice -- a place where everyone could see the results.

The current House and Senate bills allow for public school choice, but only within students' own districts. Money should be available for children to transfer out if the entire system is deficient. And, when parents opt for tutoring, adequate funds should be provided.

-- ACCOUNTABILITY: The liberal Education Trust objects to the Senate bill because it has dropped strict requirements for state and local progress in upgrading the performances of poor and minority children. That emphasis remains in the House bill and should be retained in final legislation.

-- TESTING: Yielding to conservatives and Republican governors, both the House and Senate would allow states to develop any system of annual testing they choose, possibly avoiding meaningful comparisons between districts and from year to year.

Final legislation should authorize the secretary of Education to require states to adopt testing systems that allow for maximum comparability.

In addition, conservatives object to anointing the NAEP as a "national test" to check the performance of states. But it is used by more than 40 states already -and it should be required for all, though not yet as the basis for deciding whether states should lose federal funds.

-- FLEXIBILITY: Conservatives object to the House's dropping the so-called "Straight A's" plan whereby states would be able to freely shift federal money from program to program and district to district. But the House measure does allow such transfers within school districts, which is a better form of flexibility for ensuring that money intended for poor communities stays there.

-- MONEY: What counts is not what's authorized but what is appropriated. Bush's budget originally called for a one-year increase of just $1 billion for schools. Democrats are insisting on $5 billion, and Bush has agreed to $4 billion. It looks as if the final boost could be $4.8 billion -- a good compromise.

It's good, that is, if it pays for schools that are on their way to getting better. Congress and Bush can certainly improve on that score.

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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