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Jewish World Review June 22, 2000 /19 Sivan, 5760

Morton Kondracke

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Congress Is Near Flunking a Test On School Reform -- MOST OF THE STATES and the two presidential candidates want to upgrade American public education. But after lots of talk, it looks as though Congress will fail to play its part.

The House, to its credit, passed a bill last year to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. But the measure looks dead in the Senate, caught in a partisan crossfire.

Most pathetically of all, a pioneering proposal sponsored by a group of nine moderate Democrats led by Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), designed to bridge partisan differences and advance school reform, received only 13 votes on May 9, all from Democrats.

Republicans opposed the measure mainly because it called for targeting money on local school districts rather than state governments. Most Democrats opposed it because it consolidated dozens of separate federal programs into just five categories.

Senators of both parties opposed the bill because it would have concentrated federal aid on the neediest school districts instead of spreading the money around broadly.

And, Senators of each party may have wanted to deprive the other of election-year credit for taking decisive action to improve schools.

The Lieberman measure gave Congress its best chance yet to play a leading role in the school reform movement that's finally taking hold around the country.

It combined the best ideas pushed by Republicans - tough accountability provisions, local control and parental choice - with the significant spending increases traditionally favored by Democrats.

The Lieberman bill called for increasing federal aid to public schools by $35 billion over a five-year period - increasing aid to disadvantaged schools by 50 percent and doubling outlays for improving teacher quality and teaching English to the children of immigrants.

The measure also expanded aid to new public charter schools and money for after-school tutoring, summer schools and innovative education programs.

Lieberman's bill was the subject of intense controversy among Democrats earlier this year because it called for states to lose federal funds if they failed to meet their goals for improving test scores.

However, in a significant shift, most Democrats came around to the idea that schools can't get better without imposing rigorous standards, testing and consequences for failure.

That shift has been matched by Vice President Al Gore, whose position of accountability has gotten tougher with every speech he delivers on education.

On April 30, for instance, Gore called for cutting back funding for states and districts that fail to improve test scores and close achievement gaps for poor and minority students. He also called for reorganizing failing schools and removing inept teachers.

Gore now sounds as tough on standards as Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R). The only difference is that Bush would give a voucher to help children attend private schools when their public schools fail. Gore encourages expansion of public charter schools.

Gore, too, is ready to put up significantly more money to improve education - $115 billion over 10 years vs. Bush's $16 billion over five years - and two weeks ago Gore outlined an ambitious plan to hire and pay teachers around the country.

In a speech in Lansing, Mich., May 5, Gore promised: "I will ensure that there is a fully qualified, well-trained teacher in every single classroom, everywhere in the nation, by the end of the next four years."

That is a very tall order, considering that the country needs two million extra teachers over the next decade just to replace retirees and fill an expanding number of classrooms.

Moreover, as Lieberman said in Senate debate, currently a quarter of secondary school teachers did not major or minor in the subjects they are teaching. The figure is 50 percent in minority schools.

And, a fundamental problem with U.S. education is that teachers are not paid enough to attract the smartest undergraduates into the profession.

The average salary of a U.S. teacher is only $41,000 a year, according to The Washington Post, barely a middle-class family income and far too low to mark teaching as a profession respected by society.

Gore is proposing to spend $16 billion over 10 years to improve teacher quality and pay, including giving $5,000 bonuses to teachers in high-poverty areas and $10,000 signing bonuses to persons who transfer into teaching from another profession.

Bush is far less generous, offering $3 billion over five years to recruit and train teachers and offering a mere $400 tax break when teachers spend their own money to buy school supplies.

States are not paying teachers enough, but they are imposing higher standards - which is one reason why some teachers and principals cheat on tests. It's dishonest, but it's evidence that results are beginning to count.

Congress had a chance to provide a major quality boost to American schools. Unfortunately, it looks like it will flunk the test.

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


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