- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2001

President Bush's ambitious plan for improving K-12 education met with the approval of some of the nation's state education chiefs, corporate leaders, and education reformers. But others, including teacher and principal groups, reacted with disdain.
Support ran high for the president's call for renewed accountability, yet some said they feared the school-voucher option would polarize educators and strip much-needed money from public schools that they argued desperately need more support.
"For a new president who has pledged to unite the nation and end bitter partisanship, his voucher proposal is sure to divide us," said Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, in a statement.
"Bush has an opportunity to invest in action that produces real results, such as reducing class size, repairing schools, providing extra help for students who need it, and enhancing teacher quality," Mr. Chase said. "The plan unveiled today relies on a failed political gimmick."
Gerald N. Tirozzi, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said Mr. Bush was responding to pressure from "policy gurus," to advance vouchers as a "silver bullet" solution.
Mr. Bush and his education secretary, Rod Paige, were successful in Texas with a slate of reform initiatives that were not affected by the use of vouchers, Mr. Tirozzi said.
Vouchers are publicly funded scholarships that allow children in low-performing schools to attend private and in some cases higher-performing public schools.
"Vouchers lead us away from the basic American tradition of a free, quality public education for every student and undermine the kind of comprehensive, systemic school reform that is working in many parts of the country right now," Mr. Tirozzi said.
Kaleem Caire, executive director of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a national school-choice organization with headquarters in Milwaukee, lauded Mr. Bush for taking a "serious stand" for reform. Mr. Caire thinks it is a plan that many black people, particularly those who are poor and living in urban areas, will embrace.
"I think that his agenda, whether or not it includes vouchers, holds a great deal of promise," Mr. Caire said.
Most people in America, Mr. Caire said, already have the means to make choices about their children's education, including a number of lawmakers who send their children to private schools. Giving that option to children whose schools fail to educate them makes great sense, he added.
Wilbert Bryant, Virginia's secretary of education, said yesterday he had not reviewed Mr. Bush's education package, but he noted that his state is on the same page with some of Mr. Bush's stated priorities.
"His general theme of high standards, testing to ensure students are learning the material, and accountability we certainly support that here in the Commonwealth of Virginia," Mr. Bryant said.
Ed Rust, CEO of State Farm Insurance and chairman of the education task force of the Business Roundtable, praised Mr. Bush's leadership in making education reform a centerpiece of his legislative agenda.
"I think parents need options," Mr. Rust said of vouchers.
But he said he hopes public schools are able to improve significantly in the three years they are allotted under the Bush initiative before vouchers become a possibility. Children who fail to learn in their formative years never get the chance to catch up as they matriculate, Mr. Rust noted.
Barry Lynn, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the Bush education proposal is divisive and contains what he called "unconstitutional elements that must not become federal law."
"If Bush really wants to unite Americans, he'll stop kowtowing to the religious right and sectarian special interests and move on to real education reforms that the people support," Mr. Lynn said.
"Vouchers are not scholarships," Mr. Lynn added. "They are an attempt to force taxpayers to support religious and other private schools at a time when many of our public schools are overcrowded and underfunded."

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