Bush offers education blueprint

Voucher-like plan expected to become main sticking point

`Chance to think, act anew'

Open to compromise with Democrats, president indicates

January 24, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Fulfilling a vow to get tough on failing public schools, President Bush unveiled an education package yesterday that includes a contentious plan to strip underachieving schools of federal money that parents could use instead to help pay for private schooling.

"Both parties have been talking about education reform for quite a while," Bush said, making education the first major issue he will take to Capitol Hill. "We share a moment of exceptional promise - a new administration, a newly sworn-in Congress - and we have a chance to think anew and act anew."

At a White House ceremony, the president proposed a broad blueprint for holding schools accountable for their performance. He presented it as a way to follow through on his familiar pledge that "no child will be left behind - not one single child."

The plan calls for testing children in third through eighth grades every year in math and science, and for punishing schools whose test scores remain consistently low. Bush also proposed grants for schools that launch reading programs "anchored in scientific research," and that strive to teach pupils to read by third grade.

"We must confront the scandal of illiteracy in America," he said.

With education reform a priority for both Democrats and Republicans, most elements of Bush's plan already enjoy wide support on Capitol Hill. Both parties agree on the broad idea that schools should receive federal help up to a point - and that parents should be able to move their children out of schools that continue to fail.

But the two sides generally disagree over whether private-school vouchers can be a solution. Expressing fear that such vouchers would further weaken public education, congressional Democrats warn that Bush will have to drop the "voucher" component of his plan or expect a fight.

Bush and his aides, aware that many Americans are uncomfortable with the concept of private-school vouchers, have tended to avoid the term in describing his plan.

"They can call them anything they want," said Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle. "It doesn't change the fact that the majority of Americans oppose taking money from public schools and sending it to private and religious schools."

Bush proposed during his campaign that if a public school failed to improve scores for three straight years, parents of low-income students could use their child's share of federal funds - about $1,500 a year - to help pay for a private school or for tutoring.

The vouchers would be available only to parents of children who attend failing schools and who are eligible for free or reduced-cost school lunches.

Bingaman suggestion

Yesterday, in an effort to make his package more appealing to Democrats, Bush added a provision to help struggling public schools avoid losing federal money. At the suggestion of Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, the president would allow schools that don't meet state standards for two straight years to receive federal aid to carry out reforms, such as revamping their curriculum. The goal would be to help such schools avoid an exodus of students after a third substandard year.

Under an alternative Democratic plan, parents of students in failing schools could send their children to other public schools in some cases, but not to private schools. Several Democrats predicted that Bush's provision for private-school vouchers would be dropped from his plan once it reaches Congress - and that the president would still sign the legislation. Bush has been under pressure to at least propose a voucher plan to please his party's conservative wing.

The president hinted yesterday that he was open to compromise with Democrats.

"I'm going to listen to suggestions from folks," he said. "If somebody's got a better idea, I hope they bring it forward."

Bush's plan also includes a proposal to expand tax-exempt saving accounts for higher education, raising the ceiling on annual contributions from $500 to $5,000 and allowing the money to be used to pay for any grades, from kindergarten through college. In addition, states would be encouraged to disburse more federal money to schools that raise test scores - and to cut money to schools whose scores consistently drop.

White House officials said they had not written the plans into legislation and could not put a price tag on it. "We just got here yesterday," said a senior Bush aide.

On the campaign trail, the reforms offered yesterday had been estimated to cost about $25 billion - part of a total $47.5 billion education package, portions of which are to be announced. But aides said the reforms would likely exceed that total, with the items that have been added.

Democrats said they hope to persuade Bush to spend more, and to allocate his money more toward poor districts. Some Democrats also complained yesterday that Bush's call for yearly assessment tests would force teachers to focus excessively on preparing struggling students for the exams, rather than on teaching broad concepts to all students.

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