Just How Bad is the Education Bill?

White House aides have grown testy about the education bill, unwilling to acknowledge that the compromises Congress has forced upon it have sorely weakened George W. Bush's fine reform plan. Presumably because they assented to those compromises, they feel obliged to insist that the plan remains largely intact.

Would that it were so. After thirty-six years of dashed hopes and wasted billions, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) sorely needs a complete overhaul. President Bush's proposal went at least 80 percent of the way. True, it was a tad light on school choice, but it envisioned a sizable voucher demonstration program and would give "exit vouchers" to low-income children stuck in awful public schools.

The Bush plan also mandated testing every child in grades 3-8, with serious consequences attached for schools - and states - that fail to make "adequate yearly progress" in narrowing the rich-poor achievement gap. Also promising in the original plan were the consolidation of innumerable tiny programs and freedom for interested states to decide how and where to spend their federal dollars.

Then the status quo struck back. The public school establishment fought every significant reform. Incredibly, many state education leaders eschewed new flexibility for themselves. They begged not to have to change their current tests. Nobody wanted sanctions for failing schools to kick in quickly. The voucher bits were dead on arrival. The left fretted about testing while the right didn't like federal testing. Consolidation was anathema to beneficiaries of today's categorical programs. And nearly everyone wanted more dollars for their favorite projects and schemes.

A few Republican stalwarts such as New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg strove to preserve the promising reforms in the Bush proposal. But the White House craved a bipartisan bill, and that meant compromising with Democrats Ted Kennedy and Congressman George Miller, who rule these roosts in their respective chambers.

Relentless and shrewd, they won most of the skirmishes. Vouchers vanished. (Even public school choice is limited to schools in one's own district.) Most program consolidations were undone. "Charter-state" flexibility was scaled way back. Timelines for "punishing" failed schools were lengthened, and the definition of adequate yearly progress softened. Even Bush's fall-on-the-sword testing proposal was blurred. Though we're assured that Rod Paige's Education Department will make it come out OK in the implementation phase, today there's considerable risk that intra-state testing will end up murky and that the external "audit" will permit states to choose tests on which they look good instead of the respected National Assessment of Educational Progress. Meanwhile, billions were added for everything in sight.

To be fair, even this mangled bill would work a modest improvement on current law. But this is no fundamental overhaul of federal policy and programs. The changes it will bring about will be few and slow. Implementation will be laborious and hard. And the price tag is high.

Messrs. Kennedy and Miller should be pleased. So should the public school crowd. The White House can take credit for a terrific initial proposal and for persistence in bringing a version of it to fruition. Politically, that may be smart. America's children, however, would be better served if Congress embraced a lot more of the President's proposals.

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