Should Dubya Get a Failing Grade Over School Reform?

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Candidate Bush stumps at an elementary school in Texarkana, Ark., last September

Considering how often President Bush has declared education reform to be his top priority — he did it again Thursday in a speech before newspaper editors — he doesn't seem to be breaking much of a sweat to save his school plan from the quiet dismemberment it is getting at the hands of Congress. His proposal to give private-school vouchers to children in failing public schools arrived on Capitol Hill pretty much dead, thanks to Democratic opposition. And since then conservative Republicans have stripped the bill of much its attempts to make educators accountable.

For instance, it is far from clear whether the legislation that passed the Senate Education Committee would even require states to use a uniform test to measure how their students are performing. The bill introduced last month in the House strays even further from Bush's stated goals, by dropping a requirement that states measure their progress against other states through the use of the relatively rigorous test known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). This dilution of such accountability, which was a central part of Bush's platform during the presidential campaign, comes as the latest round of NAEP reading scores, released Friday, showed the average American fourth grader is reading no better than eight years ago, and, even more worrisome, that that there has been no improvement in the gap between whites and blacks, whites and Hispanics, rich and poor.

Not the least of the reasons that NAEP is something of a dirty word among local-control conservatives in the House —is the fact that the first word in its title — National — has a whiff of federal control. But without it, education experts say, it is virtually impossible to develop meaningful performance comparisons among the states. Watering down the NAEP and testing provisions is "disastrous and takes away the heart and spirit of the legislation and the ability to overturn the status quo," says Kelly Amis, program director of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a conservative-leaning research group that supports measures such as charter schools and vouchers. "We will be left with the same old story."

Or worse. Most states already test and test vigorously (the vast majority relying on the NAEP). The deepest fear of education reformers is that the bill that comes out of Congress might actually give governors an opening to cut back on testing, the costs of which they say are draining their state budgets.

A hands-off role

Bush had promised to focus closely on a few priorities, a dramatic contrast from his predecessor's management style. Which is why his allies are so surprised at his detachment from what he has long declared to be his top legislative. "They delegated it," sniffs Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform, a group with similar views to the Fordham Foundation. "I would have thought there at least would have been a bill [drafted by the White House] and Bush would have said if you want XYZ on taxes and Social Security or anything else, give me this on education."

Instead, Bush personally has had relatively little direct contact with lawmakers on the issue since inviting key players to the White House in the opening days of his administration (and bestowing nicknames upon them). He has left it to part-time adviser Sandy Kress to steer his program through Congress, where, Kress says, "We have been, are and would like to remain in the middle."

Such an apparently laissez-faire approach has prompted a bipartisan group of Senators to begin meeting daily to come up with a strategy to put some of the teeth back into the measure when it reaches the Senate floor at the end of the month. They've already come up with an alternative to vouchers that would fund private tutoring for students in failing schools. But Bush has refused to meet with the group, and congressional sources say other White House officials had to be prodded into participating. "For how big a priority this Administration has made education publicly, it's been somewhat surprising how disengaged they've been privately," says one Democratic aide close to the negotiations.

Of course, if he doesn't fight for his bill, Bush gives himself room to claim anything that passes as a political victory, however watered-down it is. But such political posturing may have the effect of leaving parents in the dark on the question of whether their children are learning.