Cover Story

Get a bill or get it right?

Education legislation is on the fast track in Congress, but haste may make waste

Issue: "Balancing act," Sept. 8, 2001

in Washington-Holding court with about 200 children and a few adults in the auditorium of Crawford Elementary School, George W. Bush thanked his Texas neighbors for lending their space to the White House press corps. "They are, most of the time, well behaved," he quipped. "Sometimes they exaggerate, sometimes they don't." Exaggeration is also a common trait in politics, and as 53 million American children return to kindergarten through 12th-grade classrooms and homeschools, congressional leaders are promising a federal education bill that they say will fix many school woes. Right now, the legislation awaits approval from a conference committee that is debating a compromise on differing versions of the bill passed by the House and Senate; that's expected to wrap up in about a month. Both the House and Senate bills tell states to test students annually in grades 3-8 in reading and math. Both bills require two tests-one given by the state to all students, and a "second snapshot" given to a smaller sampling to verify state results. The Senate insists on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, while the House would allow commercial standardized tests. If a school fails to show annual progress after one year, the House would allow public-school choice within school districts, but the Senate would wait for an additional year of failure. After two years of inadequate progress, the House would let poorer schools use part of the school's federal money for tutoring and also change administrators and teachers; the Senate would wait for an additional year of failure. In the third year, the House would want the school reopened as a charter school; the Senate would wait for an additional two years of failure. Conference committee negotiators are struggling with how to define "annual yearly progress" so that the standards aren't set so high that most schools fail to meet them. Many current state standards are so low that few schools suffer the embarrassment of receiving a bad grade. The House generally wants higher standards, the Senate lower. The House bill also places more emphasis on minority performance. The problem of poor test scores-the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress found only 3 percent of blacks and 4 percent of Hispanics were rated as proficient in the 12th grade on math-could create pressure for less-stringent standards. Defenders of the current educational system seem to place more emphasis on keeping schools from being defined as "failing" than on keeping kids from failing. This is all a far cry from the original Bush education plan. Candidate Bush's campaign speeches on education emphasized school choice and higher standards. Bush the candidate demanded "accountability" from the nation's public schools; Congress the policymaker seems more accountable to teachers' unions. What does the National Education Association want? Heritage Foundation education analyst Krista Kafer searched the resolutions passed at its July convention in Los Angeles and found the word mathematics only five times, but the words sexual orientation 19 times. "Eighty-one percent of children are not proficient at math in the fourth grade, but it looks like the NEA is more concerned with sexual orientation than with math scores," she said. The White House emphasis on bipartisanship forbids an attack on education unions for caring more about political correctness than mathematical correctness. And the math they seem to care most about involves dollars and cents: Democrats and their union allies are starting to complain about how "little" the government will ultimately spend on education next year-even though the education bill under consideration is an authorization bill (which sets policy) and not an appropriations bill (which actually orders the cutting of checks). As the conference committee grinds toward a compromise, the smart money in Washington is on a final education package that bears little resemblance to the reform plan President Bush championed in the campaign. And if, with reporters gathered to witness a bill-signing ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, Mr. Bush smiles and calls the package "reform," journalists won't be the ones exaggerating.

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