- The Washington Times - Friday, December 22, 2000

President-elect Bush has made it clear that one of his first orders of business will be a bipartisan education bill. As lawmakers convene in Austin for the Bush education summit, I believe that we can reach a consensus on much-needed education reform by marrying the powerful themes promoted by the president-elect during his campaign with the common sense accountability reforms pursued by Republicans in Congress and the creative proposal introduced by a group of Democratic senators led by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman last year.

We came close to reaching a bipartisan education agreement in the Senate during debate on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (S.2). This failure may have a silver lining, however, as it laid down a foundation upon which we can build a bipartisan education plan.

We need high expectations for all children, regardless of race or economic status. Enacting an accountability system to hold schools and states responsible for improving student performance for all children is the best way to accomplish this objective. Additional resources will be provided for failing schools, but if those schools continue to fail, federal resources should be available to parents to send their children to a higher performing school.

A key facet of a meaningful accountability system is choice. School choice, a concept that is already in place in some form in 37 states, should be expanded so that every child has access to a successful school. An accountability system marked by these vital concepts of high expectations, clear performance goals and choice has already passed the House of Representatives last year by a vote of 358-67 (H.R. 2, The Students Results Act) and has support from both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate.

The current shortage of high quality teachers leads me to the next needed reform. Research shows that other than parental involvement, the number one contributor to student achievement is the quality of teachers. Yet, we have a growing shortage of high quality teachers.

Fortunately, a bipartisan bill passed the House and was introduced in the Senate last year. That answer is called the Teacher Empowerment Act (TEA). TEA would send billions of dollars to the states and school districts to spend on rigorous professional development, hire teachers to reduce class size, recruit teachers in underserved areas and teach essential subjects such as math and science. School districts would be allowed to use the money to provide bonuses to retain their best teachers and to assist those teachers in mentoring new ones.

Public schools need our support, but with this support comes the expectation that children will learn. States receive billions every year to improve student achievement, increase the number of high quality teachers, teach immigrant and migrant students English, and make our schools safe. However, under current law, federal funds flow without regard to the results, or lack thereof.

Republicans and the New Democrat group in the Senate support rewarding states that increase student achievement or reduce the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their peers. In that same vein, many Republicans and Democrats support decreasing a state's administrative funds if student performance remains stagnant.

If accountability is the touchstone, then classrooms must be free from drugs and violence. Under the new and improved Safe and Drug Free School program, states and school districts must set measurable goals for reducing drug use and the incidence of violence in schools. In addition, states and school districts must show that they are utilizing effective, research-based, tried and true programs that have a track record in reducing violence and drug use.

In addition, both Mr. Bush and Vice President Gore supported significant increases in character education programs on the campaign trail. Teachers must also be able to maintain order in the classroom so that children can learn. Many teachers are routinely threatened and intimidated by students. Fearing expensive lawsuits, many teachers are hesitant to use common sense discipline. The Teacher Protection Act would shield teachers, principals and school board members from frivolous lawsuits arising from their responsible efforts to maintain discipline.

Education is increasingly becoming a very expensive proposition. To help offset the rising costs of a good education, the Senate should take up Education Savings Accounts, commonly referred to as A+ Accounts. This legislation would expand existing tax free education accounts to include elementary and secondary expenses. Currently, the tax free accounts are only available for expenses associated with higher education. Under A+ accounts, families could increase their annual tax free savings from $500 to $2,000 for tuition, tutoring, and educational supplies. Unfortunately, President Clinton vetoed this legislation despite the Senate's bipartisan 61-37 vote under the stewardship of the late Sen. Paul Coverdell and Sen. Robert Torricelli.

The Bush education summit presents a real opportunity for bipartisan progress. Using the proposals discussed above as a starting point would jump-start this process. Although significant philosophical differences exist between Republicans and Democrats, now is the time to seek common ground. The American people want us to work together Enacting a bipartisan education bill right off the bat would be a clear sign that we have heard the message loud and clear.

Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, is chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Children and Families.

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