Bush’s Education Reform Plan Gains Congressional SupportSome proposed changes to education bill from CBC members were rejected
Education reform bills gaining ground in Congress may affect virtually all areas of school policy, from K-12 through higher education.The chief vehicle is H.R. 1, a plan from House Republicans and the Bush administration that has attracted support from many Democrats. The bill includes Bush’s testing initiative, in which students in grades 3 through 8 would undergo annual assessments to gauge school effectiveness. Also part of the plan is a K-12/higher education partnerships initiative that could provide $500 million for innovative programming involving colleges and universities.Senior Democrats say they don’t support all aspects of the plan but found many positive aspects — provided Congress follows up these commitments with greater investments in education. For Democrats, perhaps the most significant victory so far involves vouchers. Facing strong Democratic opposition, GOP leaders have dropped plans to allow federal funds to go toward private school education in areas with failing public schools. Most public school advocates and Black lawmakers opposed Bush’s voucher provision.The committee voted 41 to 7 in favor of the bill. Six of the seven dissenters were Republicans unhappy with the decision to drop vouchers from the plan. Among Congressional Black Caucus members on the committee, most voted for the bill, including Reps. Major Owens, D-N.Y. and Harold Ford, D-Tenn.For higher education, the bill authorizes math/science partnerships in which colleges and universities would work with at-risk schools on curriculum and teaching improvements.Projects could support summer professional workshops for teachers, curriculum improvements and follow-up training for teachers to apply in the classroom what they have learned at training sessions.Money would come from Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is reserved for educators’ professional development. Overall, the bill authorizes $2.6 billion for Title II next year. Under the new bill, up to 20 percent could go toward these K-12/college partnerships.Following are other major components of the education reform bill:• Testing: Students would be subject to annual tests in grades 3 through 8 in core academic subjects. To help pay for test costs, the bill provides about $400 million to states.• Choice: Students at a failing school would have the option to go to another public school, with transportation help available. Families also could use Title I money to obtain private tutoring services.• Flexibility: Schools could get considerably more flexibility in using federal funds if they show achievement gains.Despite getting some changes in the bill, Democrats, and specifically, Congressional Black Caucus members, were unsuccessful in seeking other improvements. For example, the committee voted down a plan by Owens to provide $21 billion over five years for school repair and renovation programs. Republicans also defeated an Owens plan to increase funds on parent involvement, as well as a plan from Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., to create a new urban school program.On final debate, Owens voted for H.R. 1, while Payne cast the lone Democratic vote against passage. In particular, Payne says he opposed President Bush’s plan to test children each year in grades 3 through 8. “I’m for standards and measuring learning, but I don’t think this is the right way,” he told Black Issues. Before such high-stakes testing, according to Payne, schools need more funds to promote new and improved learning opportunities. The government may provide $500 million for this purpose, but that funding level — for all schools nationwide — is “totally inadequate,” he says.Payne also says he opposed a provision that allows less-poor schools to claim federal Title I funds. Under the bill, schools can get funds if their poverty rates are 40 percent. The rate was 75 percent back in 1965 when Congress first tackled the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).“The original intent of ESEA was to see that poor schools were not discriminated against,” he says. Under the new Republican plan, Title I “almost becomes a block grant.”Most Democrats “rolled over and went along” with the GOP bill, Payne says. Yet they may face another challenge from conservatives who want to add a school voucher provision when the bill reaches the House floor. GOP conservatives are preparing voucher proposals to add to the bill, he added.
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