Bush’s Education Reform Plan Offers Proposals
On College-School Partnerships
But initiatives focus almost exclusively on elementary and secondary educationPresident Bush’s new education reform plan is drawing cautious support across the political spectrum except for one provision with political dynamite — vouchers for poor children.
Late last month Bush outlined a series of initiatives, including substantial funding increases for high-poverty public schools and new efforts in early literacy. Those provisions are drawing praise, as is an ambitious plan to collect and report more data on the performance of students of color in the K-12 grades.
The plan focuses almost exclusively on elementary and secondary education services, with only a few new higher education proposals. Among those initiatives, Bush would fund college partnerships with K-12 schools to improve math and science education in public schools. He also would allow taxpayers to make higher annual contributions to tax-free education savings accounts for college.
More details on the administration’s higher education plans are expected when Bush issues his first comprehensive federal education budget this month.
But clearly the most controversial provision of Bush’s new plan is what would happen at public schools that continue to fail after three consecutive years of more federal aid.
At these schools, parents could take federal dollars and use them for other options, including private education. The administration is calling it choice, but critics smell vouchers.
“There’s definitely a lot of common ground here, except for vouchers,” says Susanne Martinez, senior vice president for policy at the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF).
Teachers’ unions were even more critical, zeroing in squarely on the voucher threat. “For a new president who has pledged to unite the nation and end bitter partisanship, his voucher proposal is sure to divide us,” says Bob Chase, National Education Association president. The plan, he says, “relies on a failed political gimmick.”Some Consensus Already
But given the partisan rancor of last fall’s presidential election, many elements of the Bush plan are drawing widespread support. “I’m glad education is a priority of his,” says Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., newly elected vice chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. “Parents of every race and every class are looking for solutions.” Moreover, he says, signals from the White House and Congress point to a possible education agreement this year.
So far, consensus is strong for these provisions of the Bush plan:
n More spending: The Bush initiative could mean as much as $25 billion in new federal spending, with much of it targeted at the largest K-12 program, Title I services to disadvantaged children. Bush has yet to release firm funding figures, but lobbyists say they expect an increase of $25 billion to $35 billion to match recent Democratic initiatives. Current funding for Title I is about $9 billion annually.
Most money would go to high-poverty schools, to help promote reform and cover increased costs of testing and other monitoring efforts. “Low-income schools will need help to meet new standards,” Bush said at a White House ceremony announcing the initiative.
n School report cards: The plan calls for detailed report cards on schools so that parents, states and communities get more information about what’s working.
n More attention to poor and minority students: Bush’s plan requires states and schools to analyze achievement data by income and race, information that often is not gathered or circulated widely. “We need the data to see how poor and minority children are doing,” the president says.
n Literacy: The plan would earmark about $2 billion toward a reading readiness effort, one targeted at preschoolers and another aimed at children from kindergarten through grade 2.
Schools that make substantial progress also could receive special “Leave No Child Behind” bonuses based on their performance. Throughout his early days in office — from his inaugural address to his education plan — Bush is borrowing this term, popularized by the CDF and its president, Marian Wright Edelman.
So far, the CDF views Bush’s use of the term as a compliment. “I’m ecstatic that it’s become a motto of the new administration,” Martinez says. “But we have to hold them accountable.”Vouchers: A Barrier Ahead
But the mere mention of vouchers stirs criticism.
“I don’t see vouchers coming anytime soon,” says Cummings, who called it a potential deal-breaker in any negotiations with the White House. Even a small federal voucher program can mean trouble for public education. “If you get a little here and a little there, next thing you know you have a lot everywhere,” he says.
And Black educators, while receptive to some Bush initiatives, also will work against vouchers.
“We will not support any voucher program that uses public taxpayer dollars for private or parochial schools,” says LaRuth Gray, government relations consultant for the National Association of Black School Educators.
Aside from the political debate, some analysts question whether the Bush proposal actually could give families enough resources to go to a private school.
Under the plan, parents would get the per-student allotment that a failing school receives under the Title I program. But even the Bush team’s best estimates say that may amount to only $1,500 per student each year. “That doesn’t really buy you private school tuition,” Martinez says.
Added NABSE’s Gray, “It’s a cruel hoax to tell a poor parent in Washington, D.C., that he can vouch his way” into an elite private school.
Moreover, the $1,500 may be optimistic. A recent federal study pegged the average Title I per-student allotment at $460, says Phyllis McClure, a consultant on education and equity issues and formerly a senior staff member at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.
“If you’re only talking about Title I money, you’re not talking about very much,” McClure says. Some say a more likely option is that parents could take this extra money — be it $460, $1,500 or something in between — and apply it to extra services such as tutoring.
Yet looking at the entire plan, McClure finds much to support.
“My overall conclusion is that the Bush proposal is right on,” she says. “He’s trying to shake up some of these low-performing schools. If three years aren’t enough, parents should have an option,” she said of the school choice provision. “The problem is, federal money alone won’t do it.”Potential Roadblock
Another potential roadblock is Bush’s testing proposal, which calls for annual reading and math exams for all children from third through eighth grade. States could select their tests, but scores would help determine a school’s pass or fail status.
Already, most states do rigorous testing — but not enough in Bush’s view. Often, he says, a student will pass a state test in elementary school only to fail by seventh or eighth grade. “Testing every child every year is the way to stop this cycle,” he says.
Yet testing also raises equity and budget issues. More tests would be “a huge demand on districts,” McClure says, while anti-testing groups complain that too many teachers simply will “teach to the test,” leaving little room for other instruction.
Those on the front line also are skeptical. “We’re not opposed to testing,” NABSE’s Gray says. But, she adds, “We don’t think a single test tells us much from year to year. There are many things to look at in kids’ lives.”
Another source of possible trouble is Bush’s planned consolidation of federal K-12 programs. While details are still sketchy, many lobbyists expect him to propose converting dozens of small- to medium-size federal programs into five flexible funding authorities. Yet each of the current programs has its own constituency and advocate on Capitol Hill.
“That can get controversial,” says the CDF’s Martinez, in part because the alternative is one or more block grants that may prove tempting budget targets. “Block grants often become a way to cut funds,” she says. More details on consolidation are likely to emerge when the new president submits his first education budget, likely in late February or early March.
The Bush initiative also is striking for what it does not contain — more money for school construction and smaller class sizes, two favorite efforts of former President Clinton. The school construction initiative was a particular priority for the Congressional Black Caucus and others. “That’s a big issue,” Martinez says, “and there’s no mention of it at all.”
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