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As published in The Dallas Morning News, February 4, 2001
With just one issue, education, George W. Bush has set two major precedents. He is the first president to make the improvement of elementary and secondary education his highest priority. More important, he is the first president truly to appreciate the next chapter in American education and to articulate what must be done to make substantive education reform a reality.
Mr. Bush already has received whispered criticisms of his corporate approach to governing. But when it comes to education, that is exactly what is needed. Mr. Bush's businesslike proposals demand measurable levels of excellence for students, reward success where it occurs and punish failure. The message is clear: The job of public schools is to educate our children, and they will be held accountable for how well they accomplish that job – not just for how quickly they spend taxpayer money.
The Bush plan correctly identifies states as the primary agents of school change. States are asked to develop their own standards and curricula and to develop their own tests to measure how well the students have learned. Those measures return authority over education spending to its constitutionally appointed place – the states – and bring the power of the federal government back into proportion to the mere 7 percent of the education funding it provides.
Most conservatives oppose a national test. I don't, so long as the test is one founded on sound research, high standards, solid content and procedural safeguards to insulate it from politics and partisanship. The Bush plan threads the assessment needle by introducing the doctrine of "trust but verify" into the realm of school policy. The federal government will trust the states to do right by kids – all kids – but will verify their results by asking all states to participate in the National Assessment of Education Progress, the best, most broadly esteemed assessment tool that we have today.
Parental control over their children's education – the ultimate quality assurance in any real reform package – would be strengthened under this new plan. Mr. Bush specifically notes that there are very few regulations on home schooling and assures that his administration will fight to keep it that way. The president has proposed defraying the start-up costs of charter schools and will increase from $500 to $5,000 the amount of money that can be contributed annually to education savings accounts. He also would provide funds for disseminating information about school choice to parents, arming them with knowledge about all of their options for educating their children.
In his technology proposals, the president acknowledges that technology shouldn't be an end in itself but a means to improving student achievement. That is an important development. For several years, technology has been guided by a "field of dreams" approach at the federal level – wire the schools and fill them with computers, and higher test scores will come. Test scores and student achievement, in general, haven't been raised by computers in the schools. After more computers and increased spending, students are doing no better in math, science and reading than they did three decades ago.
Many reporters and members of Congress have chosen to fixate on the inclusion of so-called vouchers in the Bush plan. Indeed, the president's plan does provide a way out for kids stuck in failing schools, including the right to attend a better public school and eventually a small amount of federal aid to offset the cost of private school tuition or tutoring. Mr. Bush considers those mechanisms to be an important part of his accountability program. But the rage from the teachers' unions and Democrats in reaction to those proposals is very much out of place. The Bush plan gives too little money to too few students after too many years have passed. I am a proponent of making vouchers a meaningful part of education reform; this plan, as currently formulated, won't.
Where the president has balked, however, he has done so in the name of bipartisanship and for the sake of passing meaningful education reform in time for the next school year. The ball now is in the Democrats' court. We soon will learn whether they meant what they said about turning over a new leaf and working with Mr. Bush or whether they will return to the old fear tactics to derail this first step – a remarkable step for any president – toward a better education for all children. For our children's sake, let's hope they choose the high road.
William J. Bennett is co-director of Empower America and chairman of K12, an Internet-based elementary and secondary school.