- The Washington Times - Friday, February 9, 2001

President Bush's sweeping school reform ideas remind me of what the English author Samuel Johnson said of the poet Thomas Gray: "He was dull in a new way, and that made many people think him great."

Indeed, our new president wants us to get excited about his first major initiative, his sweeping education reform plan, but he doesn't seem to want us to get too excited.

Take, for example, his most controversial proposal, which is to make federal money available to parents who want to transfer their children from failing public schools to the private schools of their choice.

The best known way to do this is through vouchers, which also are very controversial. Teachers unions, in particular, fear they will drain money from public schools to help pay for kids in private schools. Civil libertarians object to possible violations of the separation of church and state if public money goes to parochial schools.

For these reasons, among others, voters in Michigan and California this November became the latest to vote down statewide voucher referenda.

Into this cross fire President George W. Bush is willing to wade, he said in announcing his education plan, but, within days he was hinting heavily that he's willing to compromise on vouchers.

"Others suggest different approaches," he said in his first weekly radio address, "and I'm willing to listen."

And listen, I am certain, he will. Mr. Bush is looking for bipartisan backing for his education proposal, which means he is putting as many sweeteners as possible into it. But one wonders if it may be sweetened so far as to be ineffective at helping the schools and parents who need help the most.

To his credit, his plan has not given up entirely on the public schools. He offers, first of all, to provide some additional federal "assistance" to help schools that "fail to make adequate yearly progress for disadvantaged students."

If they fail to make adequate progress for three consecutive years, disadvantaged students may use Title I funds to transfer to a higher-performing public or private school or some other "provider of choice" like, perhaps, home schooling.

Although he didn't mention it, that part of his scheme echoes the "A-Plus Plan" for education reform that Mr. Bush's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, put into place in that state two years ago.

In that state, students at schools that fail in two out of four years to get a passing grade in achievement, as measured by performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, are eligible for state-funded vouchers for private school tuition.

That plan has drawn criticism, as have other test-based plans in other states, from educators and parents who say schools are "teaching to the test," meaning they are centering their lesson plans around teaching students to take the test, not necessarily to get a balanced education.

That's a valid concern, although one might also say that teaching to the test is better than no teaching at all. For some districts around Florida and the rest of the country, that's a persuasive argument for the sort of accountability the Bushes are pushing for.

For some Florida schools, the test has been an important, if by no means perfect, indicator of serious weaknesses that are penalizing students. For them, the threat of vouchers actually may be proving more valuable than their actual implementation. This past year, for example, none of the schools in the state's 67 districts flunked.

But, at the same time, Mr. Bush is offering another goodie that may not be as helpful to schools who need help the most. Instead it could be a big bonus to the middle class.

Buried in his plan for overhauling education is a proposal to expand the current $500 deduction for an Education Savings Account that pays for college tuition. He would expand the eligibility to cover the costs of primary and secondary school and expand the maximum allowable deduction to $5,000 for those earning up to $100,000 a year.

This has a great chance of passing Congress, since a similar bill sponsored by Sen. Paul Coverdell, a Georgia Republican who died last year, passed Congress twice, only to be vetoed both times by President Clinton.

It would have allowed deductions of up to $2,000 by parents whose children attended public or private schools, including religious ones.

Tax breaks have a better chance of surviving court tests than vouchers do. Minnesota, Arizona, Illinois and Iowa have adopted or expanded tax credits to help finance private and religious schooling and six others are considering similar legislation for educational tax breaks.

And there's a bigger, more cynically political, reason why a tax break might have a much better chance of passage than vouchers would: The parents who need help the least might benefit the most.

After all, tax breaks don't provide much help to parents who are too poor to pay much in the way of taxes.

So if Mr. Bush wants to do something really exciting, he will keep the focus of his school reform on the schools and communities and parents who need help the most, not just those who provide the most votes. Then, as Samuel Johnson might say, he can do something truly great.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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