Education legislation now taking shape amid intense negotiations
between Democratic lawmakers and the White House is likely to
fundamentally alter the relationship between the federal government,
the states, and America's 14,500 public school districts.
If the legislation passes Congress in coming weeks, which is by
no means certain, it will give Washington a greater say in
evaluating public-school performance.
This shift in the balance of power - the most significant in a
generation - would come with the blessing of President Bush. But the
idea of a big federal role is distasteful to many within his own
party: For decades, Republican lawmakers have denounced any inkling
of federal meddling in the "local" issue of public education.
What might soften the blow for Republicans is another provision
embedded in the legislation. It would give states far more
flexibility on spending the federal dollars they receive, allowing
them to use the education money as they see fit.
This week, though, the bickering has been primarily among Senate
Democrats, some of whom worry that students in low-income school
districts will be short-changed if states get freer rein on
spending. Even so, a consensus is slowly emerging on what is
shaping up to be the most ambitious education-reform bill Congress
has ever considered. Among the provisions:
* The US Department of Education would use billions in federal
funding to encourage states to adopt "proven" educational
strategies, such as instruction in phonics.
* States that accept federal education dollars must test students
in Grades 3 through 8 annually in math and reading.
* Parents with children in failing schools will get financial
help to make choices about how to improve their kids' education,
such as hiring tutors or transferring to another school. (The House
GOP bill also funds private-school tuition.)
* Washington has the responsibility of ensuring that reforms in
the states are actually improving student achievement.
Some of these changes, such as annual state testing, would take
effect quickly. Others, such as a $5 billion reading initiative,
would take longer to filter into the nation's classrooms.
The biggest change will be how Washington confirms that its
dollars are well spent. Currently, states and school districts must
show "compliance" with the requirements of more than 50 narrowly
targeted programs: Were the funds used for the purpose for which
they were designated?
Under the new system, states could use federal funds where they
are most needed. At the same time, a broad national test - the
National Assessment of Educational Progress is to be adapted to
confirm whether the gains that may show up on state tests are real.
If not, federal funds may be withdrawn. …