Bush education plan calls for flexibility, real accountability

Miami Herald, Jan. 25

Posted: Monday, January 29, 2001

As promised, President Bush has sent Congress a serious proposal for reforming public education in America. It's a good, balanced plan with excellent prospects of drawing the bipartisan support that Mr. Bush fervently wants so he can convert a campaign pledge into a tangible achievement.

The Bush education plan would rely on testing children in grades three through eight and requires performance standards for schools. But it also would leave enough flexibility for individual states to determine which standards to use and how to measure them.

In short, the plan demands accountability while simultaneously allowing leeway for creative input by school districts. Those features make the plan attractive to divergent members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, progressive and conservative.

The most important attribute of Mr. Bush's plan is that it directs attention, energy and funding to the poorest-performing schools and students in the nation's primary and secondary grades. This should quiet critics who fear that the aim is to drain vast resources away from public schools and toward private schools.

A controversial feature of the Bush plan is that it would give money to parents of children in failing public schools to help enroll them in private or charter schools. Although Mr. Bush insists that he'll fight hard for this feature, he also wisely has hinted that the form of such payments -- commonly known as vouchers -- might be negotiated in a final bill.

Floridians will notice that President Bush's education plan is a near clone of Gov. Jeb Bush's A+ plan for Florida, which became law in 1999.

The president's reforms borrow heavily from Florida's, embracing some of its more-proven aspects -- such as focusing on poor children -- while steering clear of some of its controversial elements. For example, absent from President Bush's plan is a demand that schools be rated on a scale of A to F according to student performance on standardized tests.

Graded schools and vouchers became powerful flashpoints for opponents of the governor's plan and created distractions that drew focus away from the plan's merits.

Avoiding pitfalls like those while remaining open to alternative plans from Congress will give President Bush's reforms a solid chance.

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