- The Washington Times - Friday, April 27, 2001

A controversial education package that was supposed to have been introduced on the floor of the Senate Wednesday has become tangled up in funding and policy squabbles. When President Bush unveiled his education proposal after three days in office, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, unveiled one of his own shortly thereafter, it seemed that education was going to be the issue to span the partisan gap. Many months and drafts of the legislation later, Republicans and Democrats are caught in a struggle over funding increases, vouchers and state and federal control of standards and funds. While the framework of the bill remains solid, the two sides have decided to battle over superficial details. Furthermore, while Congress delays the introduction of the Senate debate on a reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) for yet another day of back room negotiation, children affected by reforms to the legislation are not getting any younger.
While Mr. Bushs original package would have included federal vouchers to allow poor children in failing schools to go to private schools, the compromise package would allow the students to use vouchers to receive tutoring or transportation to another public school. But Sen. Judd Gregg, who is leading the Senate Republican movement for the education proposal, will still try to attach to the bill an amendment allowing private school vouchers. This tactic has received great criticism from some Democrats, who dont want this even to be a possibility. It has also been attacked by Republicans, who want such a measure to be more than an amendment.
"The supplemental services agreement that you will see come out will be a huge step in the right direction," Jeff Turcotte of Mr. Greggs office said. "Is it everything we want? No. But is it a good step? Yes."
Another controversy is raging over the bills accountability provision. According to the current plan, each state will create a 10-year plan for success. Each district will have personalized goals in order to meet that state standard, as will individual schools in those districts. In order to ensure each school makes adequate yearly progress, each school will be surveyed for statistics on the students performance, socioeconomic status and race. In order to ensure that no subgroup is falling behind the state standard, their progress will be measured. If a state or district meets the state standard, but a poor district or school does not, their school or district will be considered failing. A school will have three years to change its record, during which it will receive increased funding to assist improvement. After that, the school will go through a series of measures. Staff could be fired and replaced, as can curriculum, or the school could be changed to a charter school. Students could move to other public schools. As every school would have to live up to state standards, poor, Hispanic, black or underperforming schools would not be allowed to fall through the cracks.
"There have been lower expectations for low income students, and weve got to correct that. But to do so, weve got to identify how those children are performing," Dan Gerstein of Mr. Liebermans office said.
But first, Congress has to get over its spending squabbles. The White House has upped its proposed spending on ESEA from $19 billion to $20.6 billion, and the Democrats have decreased their bid from $31 billion to $27.2 billion, according to the Associated Press.
Perhaps what Congress needs as this battle drags on is a little help from the classroom. Tanya Higgins is a fifth-grader going to Marva Collins Preparatory School in Milwaukee on a federally funded voucher. "Tanya doesnt have any school horror stories," her father, Tony Higgins said while visiting Washington recently. "Shes never been through metal detectors … But there are thousands of kids across the city who have schools with lead paint, children who have to sit in hallways" because their schools are ill-equipped. "In this country, if I beat her or starve her, I could go to jail. But if I allow her to go uneducated, so thats shes unemployed, nothing happens. We spend $300 million for baseball teams that cant win, but we tell them its OK they cant read," he said.
Maybe Tanya could help educate Congress about how urgently ESEA reform is needed. She can read, but many of her peers in failing public schools cant. Now is not the time to stall.

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