A bold school plan we've all seen before

Education: President pushes for feds to get involved in what states already do, so plan needs tweaking.

January 25, 2001

CALL IT SCHOOL reform redux.

President George W. Bush's plan to expand federal involvement in education looks a lot like the efforts already going on in Maryland and Texas, where Mr. Bush was governor.

We're already holding schools accountable for their performance, already testing young children in most grades. And there are now consequences in this state for incessant failure - just ask the out-of-work principals whose Baltimore schools were reconstituted last year.

On its face, Mr. Bush's plan simply raises the stakes in this exercise by including the threatened loss of federal money if schools don't get better. It only hints at school vouchers, which should prevent that controversial idea from hogging the debate.

The plan deserves the serious consideration Mr. Bush has implored both Democrats and Republicans to grant it.

But Congress should keep some things in mind as it crafts the final bills:

The president's plan would greatly expand the federal role in education. This shouldn't mean endless duplication of effort with state programs or bureaucratic over-reaching. States such as Maryland and Texas have been doing fine with accountability and standards without federal oversight. They shouldn't be made to answer to Washington on anything but the broadest guidelines. And Congress' final bill must prevent government regulators - who will be Republican for at least the next four years - from imposing a political agenda, rather than actual reforms, on the nation's schools.

Mr. Bush also proposes expanded testing, but is that necessary everywhere? All 50 states test how well students are learning and 27 hold schools accountable for their performance on those tests, according to Education Week. In Maryland, young children are tested in every grade except seventh. Parents and teachers complain - justifiably - that test obsession is cutting into quality instructional time. An expanded federal role should help temper, not intensify, that trend.

The Bush plan would send more money to failing districts before cutting bait and giving their students vouchers; that provision should make it into the final bill, because accountability means nothing without support. As we've seen in Baltimore, Maryland's worst district, real reform efforts - reducing class sizes, replacing outdated books, attracting new teachers, expanding the school day and school year - cost big money.

In a political sense, Mr. Bush's plan shows he's still thinking more like a governor than the nation's chief executive. It seems a little aggressive, maybe even like a power-grab. That's lessened somewhat by the modest, universal appeal of his ideas (who can be against standards?) and his downplaying of the voucher concept.

Congress must shape the plan further to make it sensible and practical for the nation's educators and children.

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