- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2001

In his recent speech to Congress and the nation, President George W. Bush declared, "Education is my top priority." To that end, he asserted, "The highest percentage increase in our budget should go to our children's education." The next day, Mr. Bush made good on his commitment. His administration released its first budget blueprint, which, as it happened, reflected a whopping 11.5 percent increase in total budget authority for the Department of Education. Now it is time for Congress to make good on its end of the bargain by passing education reform with teeth.
It isn't as though the feds have shortchanged education spending in recent years. Indeed, during the previous five years the ostensibly parsimonious Republican Congress deluged the Department of Education with annual spending increases averaging 13 percent. While Mr. Bush seems determined to continue the recent tradition of educational spending largess which has been matched at the state and local levels, where schools receive about 93 percent of their funding the president intends to add an important condition for the annual federal windfalls to continue: accountability.
Well, it's about time. As Mr. Bush pointed out throughout the presidential campaign, nearly 70 percent of low-income fourth graders are unable to read at the basic level, the minimally acceptable standard. Moreover, as the results of the 1999 Third International Mathematics and Science Study recently revealed, American eighth graders continue to lag well behind many of their Asian and European counterparts in math and science. It is simply unacceptable that math students from South Korea, Taiwan, the Slovak Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Latvia, among others, outperform the more financially advantaged American students.
It is no longer enough to declare, as the United States did in 1990 when the ambitious Goals 2000 program was embraced, that American students would be "first in the world in mathematics and science achievement" 10 years later. Those goals clearly were not met. If Mr. Bush's education program, No Child Left Behind, is to live up to its lofty name, it will have to institute strict accountability standards as the quid pro quo for increased funding. After all, as the recent budget blueprint noted, while the federal government since 1990 had cumulatively spent nearly $90 billion on the Title I program, which targets impoverished students, "achievement scores have remained generally stagnant."
In addition to increased funding, Mr. Bush's education plan would provide states with much greater flexibility to address their specific needs by consolidating dozens of educational programs into five bloc grants. In exchange for the funding increases and flexibility, states would have to demonstrate that their disadvantaged students are making progress in closing the achievement gap.
The Bush plan would require states, using tests they chose or developed themselves with funding assistance from the federal government, to test their students in math and reading in grades 3 through 8 each year. They would have to report the test results, which would be broken down by race, gender, socioeconomic status and English language proficiency. School-by-school report cards would be published. The federal government would award bonuses to states for making progress and withdraw administrative funding from those failing to show any improvement.
If a school failed to meet state improvement standards three years in a row, the Bush plan would permit its students to use their share of Title I funding, which averages about $1,500 per student, to pay for private school tuition or other private educational services, such as tutoring. Unfortunately, this important accountability provision will not appear in the education bill a Senate committee will soon report to the floor.
Mr. Bush's plan demands reform that has real consequences. The worst outcome, of course, would be for Congress to write legislation that incorporates Mr. Bush's commitment to increase funding without adopting the accountability standards. As authorizing legislation works its way through Congress, Mr. Bush should make it clear that the increased funding is conditional on education reform that enforces real accountability standards. Otherwise, appropriations should be vetoed.


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