- The Washington Times - Monday, July 9, 2001

The conservative Heritage Foundation has taken issue with President Bush's praise of Senate- and House-passed education reform bills, saying they lack meaningful school-choice options and would set back true public school reform.
"While some may urge the president to sign the bill that comes out of [a Senate-House conference] committee, reasoning that 'something is better than nothing,' this is not the case," the foundation said in a critique of bills passed by both houses of Congress before the July 4 recess.
"Passing a bill that waters down a once-energetic plan to improve the nation's education system will be a setback, especially if it is touted as radical reform. Many years could pass before another opportunity arises for serious, substantial reform," the foundation said.
On Thursday, Mr. Bush urged Senate and House negotiators to act quickly, starting this week, to resolve differences in their bills to implement his early reading initiatives and require yearly testing of reading and math skills for all public school children in grades three through eight.
The House has appointed conferees, but the Senate has not. "Our bill out of the House and Senate passed with large majorities and bipartisan support. There's no reason for delay," the president said.
"This is a good bill. It's a good piece of legislation because it aligns authority and responsibility at the local level, because it believes in setting high standards, it challenges the soft bigotry of low expectations, and its cornerstone is strong accountability measures so that we can make sure not one single child gets left behind in America," Mr. Bush said.
However, Heritage said neither the Senate nor House bill offers "real opportunities for poor children trapped in failing schools," as proposed in Mr. Bush's blueprint called "No Child Left Behind."
"The Bush plan requires school choice, public or private, for disadvantaged students in persistently failing or unsafe schools. The House bill mandates intra-district public school choice for students in failing and unsafe schools unless prohibited by state law. If schools continue to fail, the district must provide access to supplemental services by a state-approved provider. This is a slight improvement over current law, which allows intra-district public school choice for students in schools under corrective action at the behest of the district and state," the foundation critique said.
"The Senate bill mandates intra-district public school choice for disadvantaged children in failing schools unless prohibited by state or local law. This is not much different from current law.
"It will not give students access to successful out-of-district and private schools, and may even deny them access to other schools within the district. It will give states and local governments the option to deny students in failing schools the opportunity to attend a better school in the district."
David Schnittger, spokesman for the House Education and Workforce Committee, said: "Heritage downplays the consolidation and flexibility provisions in the House bill and misses the significance of H.R. 1's parental empowerment provisions, which establish an important precedent for future victories on private school choice. All of these issues will be topics of discussion in conference."
He said the House bill eliminates one-third of 66 current federal categorical grant programs for kindergarten through 12th grade, while the Senate bill "may increase the number of programs."
Mr. Schnittger said the House-passed bill "is true to all four pillars of the president's vision for education reform: accountability, funding for what works, flexibility and local control, and expanded parental options."
Heritage gave the House bill "two and a half stars," compared with Mr. Bush's original "five-star plan," saying the bill "contains some accountability regulations, some flexibility, and many of the programmatic improvements of the president's plan." But the analysis said the bill "fails to make structural changes" in the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
"With few exceptions, the Senate bill is devoid of reform" and "merits a single star" for expanding charter school provisions, Heritage said.
"During the legislative debate, the bidding war to drive up spending succeeded in making a bad bill worse."

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