The Shape of School Reform

Some pieces of Bush's plan are getting left behind--but the President is likely to get most of what he wants

Everyone is for education reform, but defining "reform" is another matter--especially in Washington. For weeks, Republicans and Democrats have been divided, whether it's over how to interpret standardized test scores or how much to spend on school construction. President Bush has staked enormous political capital on his plan to "leave no child behind," a top domestic policy issue in the campaign.

As the Senate debated his plan in the first week of May, lawmakers were close to a deal. Bush is sure to lose on one key issue--the hot-button question of vouchers. Democrats also have forced Bush to go along with more spending than he wanted. But when the dust settles--which should happen this spring--he's likely to emerge with most of his agenda intact. If so, it would help shore up his image as a "compassionate conservative."

A guide to the key issues follows:

How would Bush's education reform affect schools?

His plan would require schools to give standardized reading and math tests every year, beginning in 2004. Every student in grades 3 through 8 would be tested. Individual school districts would be required to improve their test scores every year.

If they don't, the Education Dept. could withhold federal money, which makes up about 7% of school spending nationwide. Failing schools could be dismantled or turned into charter schools. Parents also would get more say in which schools their children attend.

So what has been dividing Democrats and Republicans?

Lawmakers agree in principle that schools need to measure student progress. They also agree that it's high time problem schools were forced to face up to their failings. But the two sides have been at odds on how much money the federal government should pitch in.

How are they bridging the gap?

They compromised. Initially, the President proposed a hike of 5%, or $1.8 billion, which would lift federal spending on K-12 education in 2002 to $19.1 billion. By May 1, the White House, under pressure from Democrats, had come up to more than $23 billion. For their part, the Democrats, who want more money to repair schools and hire teachers, came down from $31 billion.

Why do Republicans oppose more funds for schools?

They argue that the feds have already ponied up education money for the states in past years with little to show for it. Federal spending on schools has more than tripled since 1982, to $17.2 billion, yet student math and reading scores have remained flat. So Republicans fiercely oppose more big spending hikes for schools. "There needs to be some restraint," says Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

But aren't new tests expensive?

Members of both parties--especially governors and state officials--say Bush's plan doesn't provide enough money for testing. They cite a study by the National Association of State Boards of Education that says states would have to spend up to $7 billion total to develop the tests. Bush set aside just $320 million to help states do this. "I'm all in favor of a modest federal role [in education], but I don't want that to mature into a full-fledged unfunded mandate," says Senator Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). But in the end, it looks like states won't get much more money for testing.

Aren't there other objections to tests?

Yes. Democrats argue that they take up too much class time and don't provide much useful information about student performance. Others claim that such tests discriminate against ethnic minorities and the poor. Teachers particularly dislike the idea that low-performing schools could lose millions of dollars in federal funds under Bush's plan. They worry that this could cost them jobs.

Didn't Bush want to give all states the freedom to spend federal dollars as they see fit?

Yes. Senate and White House negotiators have agreed to a pilot plan that would allow 15 states to spend their federal dollars with no strings attached, instead of targeting specific programs. This is a compromise for Bush.

What happened to vouchers?

Bush made a big deal about using public money for private schools in his campaign. But it's just too controversial, even in the GOP. So he dropped it.

But Bush will still end up with much of what he wants?

Yes. Most observers expect Congress to deliver an education reform bill the President will be willing to sign. Some of the consequences may be more than the GOP is bargaining for. For example, Washington would get more say in how public schools are run, and the Education Dept. could end up policing pupil progress. Nonetheless, it seems likely that Bush will be entitled to call himself the Education President.

By Lorraine Woellert in Washington

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