The Education President's Plan

April 19, 1991

President Bush's "education strategy" -- issued yesterday, two years after he took office styling himself "the education president" -- contains much that is good, little that is inherently bad and several items that need careful refinement.

It is to the good that there is a plan at all, that Mr. Bush is finally showing initiative in education after the torpid leadership of Education Secretary Lauro Cavazos. Lamar Alexander, who took over last month after Mr. Cavazos was forced out, has recaptured momentum with surprising speed.

The freshest and most welcome initiative is the effort to launch "a new generation of American schools." Business leaders would set up a nonprofit corporation to support research and development teams to "begin by erasing all conventional assumptions and restraints about schooling."

The results of this effort would be tried in "New American Schools" -- at least one in each congressional district by 1996. An initiative to develop and test new ideas for schools is sorely needed.

While those new approaches are being developed, the plan calls for setting new standards for achievement, developing voluntary national tests and issuing "report cards" to the public on whether schools and school districts meet the grade. This is consistent with the current thrust of education reform in many states, including Maryland.

The plan calls for federal funds to go to states to reward "schools that make notable progress toward the national education goals." This is one area where details have to be crafted carefully to ensure the program does more good than harm. It makes no sense to reward the "haves" -- already successful suburban schools -- and penalize inner-city and rural schools lacking the resources for success.

There will be even more argument about the call to allow parents to choose the school their children attend. There will be -- and should be -- legal and political challenges to spending public money on private and religious schools.

Even a "choice plan" limited to public school raises difficult questions. Should a student from Baltimore, for example, be able to choose to attend a school in Howard County? If so, who pays? Who provides transportation? Does Howard County get to decide which students it will accept? If so, what are the guarantees that it will choose fairly?

While choice plans show promise within a number of school districts, those which cross lines between districts and between public and private schools are much more problematical. More resources will be needed to make choice plans work.

Resources are destined to be another point of debate over the Bush-Alexander blueprint. While the president does provide money to support initiatives, it appears that money would be taken from other federal education programs. Care must be taken not to cut worthwhile current programs to launch new ones, no matter how promising.

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