July 5, 2001

July 5, 2001 | News Releases on Education

Education Reform Bill Too Weak to Help Students, Analyst Says

WASHINGTON, Jul. 5, 2001-Congress has watered down President Bush's education plan so much that, unless it is significantly improved in the House/Senate conference, it won't accomplish what America's students need, says a new Heritage Foundation paper.

Key elements of the president's plan-accountability, choice, flexibility and structural change-have been eliminated or weakened to the point that his design for educational reform is barely recognizable, says Heritage education policy analyst Krista Kafer.

"National and international achievement test scores demand a profound shift from the status quo, but these bills will be profound only in their cost to taxpayers," Kafer says. "If real accountability, flexibility, consolidation and opportunity for poor children aren't strengthened in conference, the president should send Congress 'back to school' to get it right."

President Bush wanted to streamline the education funding process and give greater flexibility to states and districts to spend federal grants to meet students' needs. The reason: The current practice of micromanaging how school districts spend the money and subjecting them to onerous reporting requirements ties up valuable resources in skeins of red tape and paperwork. Streamlining also would eliminate duplicative and ineffective programs.

The president wanted to raise accountability in schools through regular testing and by providing real rewards and sanctions for results. Most importantly, he sought to make schools accountable by giving parents the opportunity to choose better schools.

President Bush also wanted to increase flexibility and encourage faith-based organizations to participate in after-school and Safe and Drug Free Schools programs. Finally, he wanted to make all federal education programs demonstrate their effectiveness or lose their funding.

As lawmakers begin the conference process, they should improve on the House and Senate bills by incorporating more of President Bush's plan, Kafer says. The House bill improves flexibility, curtails some ineffective and duplicative programs, and calls for standardized testing. But it fails to provide children in failing schools with better options other than to attend another school in the same district and supplemental services, such as tutoring.

"In districts where most schools are mediocre or worse, it doesn't help to shuffle students from one school to another," she says.

With one notable exception, the Senate bill stands nearly devoid of reform, Kafer writes. It provides for a charter initiative in which states and school districts enter into a performance agreement to improve academic achievement in exchange for flexibility in how they spend federal education dollars. Under these arrangements, standardized tests would measure success, and failure would result in loss of funds.

But for the most part, the Senate bill amounts to "just a more expensive version of the status quo," Kafer says.

The president called for a significant overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, the principle source of federal K-12 spending. His plan sought to restructure ESEA into a results-oriented system, Kafer says. But while the House and Senate bills do call for testing, at almost every turn Congress has chosen to back off of or soften elements of the Bush proposal that would give students in failing schools access to better schools. Yet testing without consequences and without providing options for students in underperforming schools "amounts to just an administrative upgrade," Kafer says.

"School districts don't need more Washington-knows-best programs and regulations," she says. "They need greater accountability to parents and more flexibility in meeting their goals. This won't come from the bills headed to conference committee. It's time for Congress redo its homework."

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