Will Education Be Bush's First Big Win?

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Bush talks with members of the Joint Congressional Education Leadership

Just as Bush was presenting his education agenda last week, Senators Joe Lieberman and Evan Bayh rolled out their own bill, co-sponsored by 12 centrist "New Democrats." The plans' similarities show how far Republicans have come from their opposition to any federal role in education, and Democrats from believing that money without accountability works. A compromise bill could be the most substantive education reform in 35 years.

Federal education dollars are currently spread across hundreds of programs administered by 39 different agencies, with states having little incentive to ensure that students learn. Both reform proposals would streamline federal programs, giving states more flexibility. In return, states would lose funds if schools failed to improve.

The plans differ in some ways that should be easy to negotiate—how much testing to require, how best to consolidate various programs. But there are two sticking points: Bush's plan gives vouchers to parents of kids in failing schools to pay for private school, an idea that is anathema to Democrats, and it doesn't guarantee most federal money goes to the neediest schools—a corner– stone of the New Democrats' plan.

The Plans Compared

Bush: If schools with disadvantaged kids fail for three straight years, their federal dollars are given to parents to use as vouchers. Conservatives love the idea, but it's a deal breaker for just about everyone else. new dems: States and schools that fail to meet performance targets lose some federal funding. Likely to pass Congress, but what's to stop a state from watering down its tests to keep the federal dollars flowing?

Bush: He hasn't yet provided specifics, but his campaign plan included $25 billion in new spending over 10 years. Governors get more control, with no requirement that most federal cash goes to the poorest schools. new dems: Federal spending increases $35 billion over five years. Aid is tightly targeted to the neediest schools, which pleases liberals but could turn off Congressmen looking to court middle-class constituents.

Bush: States must test students every year in reading and math, grades 3 to 8. Governors may balk at the mandated frequency; educators are worried that the tests will cause schools to ignore science and history. new dems: Current law requiring states to test students at least one time each in elementary, middle and high school stays the same. But without annual tests, how can states track who falls behind and who needs help?

Bush: Combines some specific federal programs into broader performance-based grants but also creates new categorical grants for character education and math and science partnerships. new dems: Streamlines more than 50 current federal programs into five performance-based grants. Could face political heat from those wishing to protect programs like Safe and Drug-Free Schools and bilingual education.