- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2001

President Bush yesterday presented Congress a broad education-reform plan that emphasizes early reading, annual testing in grades three through eight and a potential sticking point vouchers to help students in failing schools.
Mr. Bush underscored education as his top priority by making the package the first legislation he takes up with Congress.
"Both parties have been talking about education reform for quite awhile," Mr. Bush told educators and staff members during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.
"It's time to come together to get it done so that we can truthfully say in America: No child will be left behind not one single child."
Many Democratic lawmakers praised Mr. Bush's emphasis on education, but stressed they will oppose school choice. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, one of four congressional education leaders who met with Mr. Bush at the White House yesterday, told reporters he thinks Democrats can muster the votes to stop the voucher proposal.
But Mr. Bush said options for students and parents are critical to holding schools accountable.
"None of us at the federal government should try to impose a school-voucher plan on states and local jurisdictions," Mr. Bush said at the beginning of the meeting with Mr. Kennedy; Sen. James M. Jeffords, Vermont Republican; and Reps. John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, and George Miller, California Democrat.
"That's not the prerogative of the federal government, as far as I'm concerned," said Mr. Bush. "But to the extent that the federal government spends money, we ought to expect good results and good consequences."
In the East Room, Mr. Bush sounded adamant: "When schools do not teach and will not change, parents and students must have other meaningful options."
Bush aides said they do not yet have a price tag for the president's education plan.
The president campaigned on a $47.6 billion education program, but that figure included college programs. The proposal Mr. Bush announced yesterday encompasses only elementary and secondary schools, but contains additional funding for disabled students.
Under Mr. Bush's plan, students in grades three through eight would take annual tests in math and reading. The state would pick the tests.
Parents of low-income students in schools that failed to show improvement for three years could use their share of federal and some state funds given to the school an average of $1,500 per year to attend a better public school or a private school, or to hire tutors.
Bush policy advisers portrayed the voucher component as a last resort. They said accountability measures are meant to identify and to fix failing schools.
Mr. Bush's 28-page education blueprint, entitled "No Child Left Behind," begins with a foreword in which the president writes: "Bipartisan education reform will be the cornerstone of my administration."
Reaction from Capitol Hill was mostly favorable.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, called the Bush plan "a measured proposal."
"This excites the leadership of the Congress, I believe, in both parties," Mr. Lott said on the Senate floor. "We can have Republicans and Democrats come together on this because what President Bush is proposing is not Republican or Democrat. It's what can work and will work."
The New Democrat Coalition, representing about 90 members of the House and Senate who are primarily centrists, put forth a plan yesterday that would increase federal spending on education by $35 billion over five years.
The proposal shares some points with Mr. Bush's plan, such as increasing accountability of schools and giving districts more flexibility in spending federal dollars. But the Democrats' plan opposes vouchers and favors testing students less frequently than Mr. Bush proposes.
"President Bush has articulated a set of priorities that overlap significantly with our New Democratic proposal," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat. "We believe there is a lot of room for collaboration."
However, Mr. Lieberman said he disagreed with Mr. Bush's focus on promoting school choice such as high-quality public charter schools as an alternative to underachieving public schools.
"I've supported demonstration programs to see how vouchers work for poor children," said Mr. Lieberman, "but I don't think there's a consensus in Congress for vouchers certainly not the kind of vouchers President Bush has in his proposal, which would basically give up on the public schools too soon and then spend public-school money to send the kids to nonpublic schools."
Mr. Bush stressed that he is willing to work with lawmakers from both parties and he welcomes new ideas. He pointed to Mr. Lieberman's remarks as a sign of progress.
"I was pleased to see that Senator Joe Lieberman brought up his plan that includes different options for parents. It's a great place to begin," the president said in the East Room.
"He and I understand that an accountability system must have a consequence; otherwise, it's not much of an accountability system."
Mr. Jeffords, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, called the administration initiative "very ambitious" and said it contained "several areas where there is general, bipartisan agreement for providing the tools necessary for every child to receive a quality education."
While cautioning that the federal government does not have all the answers for comprehensive education reform, Mr. Jeffords said Congress should move immediately, as Mr. Bush has done, to make it the top national priority.
"It is essential to our economic survival," the centrist Republican said. "Almost half of all adults have neither completed high school nor have pursued any type of postsecondary education. Approximately 20 percent of all 18-year-olds do not graduate from high school."
Rep. Tim Roemer, Indiana Democrat, agreed that vouchers "will be a big battleground" between the administration and congressional Democrats.
Mr. Boehner, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, applauded the president's focus on improving literacy and teacher quality.
"By investing $5 billion in states that establish comprehensive and scientifically based reading programs, children will acquire the basic skills they need to learn and prosper," the Ohio Republican said.
But Rep. Cal Dooley, California Democrat, questioned whether enough members of his own party were willing to work with Mr. Bush "to get things done in a bipartisan fashion."
He said the New Democrats' proposal "is a centrist approach to improving our children's education that represents a bridge to President Bush's own proposal."
The busy first days in office apparently have built up the president's appetite. Just before noon, Mr. Bush ducked his head into the press briefing room, startling reporters, photographers and television technicians.
"At ease," the president said. "Anybody got any burgers in there?"
Dave Boyer and Andrea Billups contributed to this report.

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