GOP splits over Bush education proposals

Conservatives use local control case to fight reforms

Mandates raise concerns

April 05, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush arrived in Washington with grand plans to reform the public schools. He pledged to get tough by requiring annual reading and math tests to ensure that all students, especially those who have long underperformed, were learning and meeting high standards.

But now, Bush is under pressure from conservatives in his own party to retreat from a central element of his education agenda. Several Republicans complain that Bush's plan would amount to federal meddling, by instructing states on how to test.

And as they have helped write Bush's ideas into legislation, these conservatives have so far succeeded in watering down some of the tough language in his plan.

Bush is absorbing the most heat from the Education Reform Caucus, a group of loosely aligned lawmakers formed last year and chaired by two Republicans in the House, Reps. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan and Robert W. Schaffer of Colorado.

The caucus, which focuses mostly on encouraging parental involvement and ensuring that schools are safe and drug-free, says it is open to testing. But its members argue that localities - not the federal government - should be calling the shots.

"We're not against measuring progress, but mandating the stuff from Washington does create some concern," Hoekstra said. "I'm uneasy about putting the kind of framework in place that says, `States have to do this.'"

Such resistance from Republicans in a closely divided Congress is complicating the White House's effort to push what it assumed would be a rosy legislative victory.

Hoekstra said that while "there are more members that share some of [his] concerns," some Republicans have sought to keep their voices low, wary of harming the agenda of a president whose top priorities they largely share.

Bush's advisers profess not to be worried. Education Secretary Rod Paige acknowledges the hesitation of some Republicans to embrace Bush's push for testing. But Paige dismisses their concerns as unfounded fears that the administration favors a single national exam.

"The conservative lawmakers are saying, `We don't want a national test,'" Paige said in an interview. "We're saying, `We're with you.'"

Losing capital?

But without the wholehearted backing of some in his own party, the president may have lost some leverage on education reform, in which he has long invested time and political capital.

Bush's reforms in Texas helped define his two terms as governor, and for years he has received encouragement and advice from his wife, Laura, a former teacher.

With great pomp, Bush held a ceremony three days after taking office - bleachers from the inaugural parade were still outside the White House - to unveil his initiative. It was time, Bush said, to "think anew, and act anew."

The centerpiece of Bush's plan was a demand for accountability from states and school systems. States would have to administer their own annual reading and math tests in grades three through eight. They would have to prove "results in student achievement would be comparable from year to year."

School systems that showed progress could receive rewards, such as increased federal funding. Under-performing states and systems could see their funding cut.

But now, some conservatives are using one of Bush's core principles from his years as governor - that education is largely a local and state matter - against him.

His advisers insist Bush is still committed to his plan. But some education reformers who have embraced his ideas say they now fear Bush is signaling willingness to settle for changes not nearly as profound as he had proposed.

They point out, for example, that conservatives were able to remove some of the teeth from Bush's proposal.

Lacking strength

A House version of the president's plan lacks any explicit requirement that states demonstrate test results are comparable from year to year.

The bill also dropped Bush's desire for a federally administered exam, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, to be used by states as a check on the results from their own tests.

Under the House measure, states could opt to use other achievement tests, such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, to serve that purpose.

"This is really a terrible set of circumstances," said Diane Ravitch, who was assistant education secretary under Bush's father.

Unless states are monitored more closely than they would be under the current legislation, Ravitch warned, "there is no accountability. There will be a lot of testing going on, a lot of money being spent, and nothing being gained."

Reform advocates say the proposals, as written so far, would do little to change the status quo. States, for example, would not have to administer the same type of test every year to provide a basis of comparison, as was done in Texas under Bush. Many states, including Maryland, offer different types of tests to students in different grades.

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