- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 25, 2001

President Bush this week unveiled his much-anticipated educational reform package and to the surprise of no one it includes vouchers, yearly math and reading tests and flexible federal funding. It drew criticism because it challenges the status quo head on something Washington should have done long ago by establishing the right mix of resources and accountability.

Actually, Mr. Bush is quite generous, offering up a proposal that grants money and the chance for failing school systems to turn themselves around in three years. For far too many school districts such as Washington, D.C., where the public school system has been in turmoil for a decade three years is a long stretch. Two provisions in the Bush plan give school districts greater flexibility: One would loosen federal restrictions on how school districts spend federal dollars. For example, one school district might want to use those dollars to modernize schools while another might need more reading and math teachers. Another option would allow parents to use federal money to send their children to better-performing schools.

Schools have been dumbed-down for years. How else can you explain the fact that more than $120 billion in federal tax dollars are spent on education every year, yet 70 percent of inner-city fourth graders cannot read on a fourth-grade level?

Interestingly, Mr. Bush's educational plan, which remains true to themes he sounded on the campaign trial, enjoys bipartisan support on all key areas except vouchers. The two largest teachers unions the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have said they want to raise standards, which obviously must be measured by standardized tests. Those same unions, some Democrats, the National PTA and most other voucher opponents, meanwhile, want to leave those aforementioned fourth-graders behind. "I don't think we ought to abandon schools by taking money away from public schools in order to save them," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the senior Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said yesterday.

Begging all their pardons but who, precisely, is "we?" The factory worker in Detroit who should be permitted to send $1,500 of his tax dollars and his child to a parochial school? Or the single mom in Washington who wants her struggling fourth-grader to attend a high-performing and safer school in Southeast?

"When schools do not teach and will not change, parents and students must have other meaningful options," Mr. Bush said. "If somebody's got a better idea, I hope they bring it forward."

The Democrats think they do. While their party draws the line on vouchers, they also want to massage other aspects of Mr. Bush's plan, including whether students are tested every year or every few years. That is to be expected. At the same time, however, parents have told Mr. Bush they expect Congress to get to work on legislation as soon as possible. They want their school districts positioned to implement reforms at the start of the next school year. Those fourth-graders cannot wait much longer.

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