Bipartisan support for education legislation
WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress gave final approval Tuesday to the major education overhaul sought by President Bush, providing more money for local school districts and insisting on higher achievement in return. For millions of students, it will mean new annual math and reading tests.
The Senate vote, 87-10, marked a final bipartisan flourish for the most sweeping overhaul of federal education programs since the Great Society more than three decades ago. The House approved the bill last week on a vote of 381-41.
Bush hailed the vote on an issue he made a centerpiece of his campaign for the White House last year.
“These historic reforms will improve our public schools by creating an environment in which every child can learn — through real accountability, unprecedented flexibility for states and school districts, greater local control, more options for parents and more funding for what works,” he said in a written statement. Bush expects to sign the measure into law within weeks.
The measure gives states and school districts more freedom over how they spend federal dollars, but requires them to raise student achievement, monitor teacher quality and close the gap between poor and middle-class students — and white and minority students.
“School improvement and school reform are not optional, they are mandatory,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., one of four key lawmakers who shaped the measure.
Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., added, “What we’re doing is creating opportunities for local school districts, states and especially parents, to take advantage of using their federal dollars in a more effective way of educating the low-income child.”
Several lawmakers, including Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., have complained that the $26.5 billion plan falls short by not giving schools enough money, especially for costly programs to help disabled students.
Jeffords, who headed the Senate’s education committee until he left the Republican Party last May, joined six Democrats and three Republicans who voted against the bill.
Beginning in the 2004-2005 school year, schools would be required to test every student in grades three through eight in reading and math each year. For the first time, the scores would affect how much federal funding a school gets — and how school officials can spend it.
Schools with persistently low test scores would get extra federal funding, but low-achieving poor students could ask that part of a school’s federal allotment be spent on tutoring or transportation to another public school.
Schools could be freed from such provisions only if the scores of students of all racial, ethnic and economic groups improve. They would have 12 years to get all students reading and doing math proficiently, but could be given more time if they show slow, steady progress.
Schools would have to send annual “report cards” showing a school’s standardized test scores compared to others locally and statewide, as well as how many teachers are qualified to teach in their subjects. In what might seem unthinkable, schools would have to send a note home to parents if a student is taught by a teacher without required qualifications, such as a social studies teacher teaching a math class.
Such requirements have soured support for the bill among groups representing school administrators and school board members, who say their strapped systems would be burdened more than ever. The testing provisions alone are expected to cost billions, they say, with the bill providing only a fraction of that.
National School Boards Association lobbyist Reggie Felton said the new requirements will be difficult to fulfill.
“We believe that our schools will want to make the changes, will want to accommodate the law, but will simply be strained due to increasing costs to provide services to students with disabilities,” he said.
Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust, a Washington group that advocates for urban and minority students, said the provisions for children in struggling schools represent a sea change in national education policy.
“It recognizes for the first time that there are actual kids moving through these systems, who need help now,” she said. “They can’t afford to wait.”
She also said the ambitious testing requirements may be painful to school districts, but in the end will help them spend their money more wisely.
“This will give educators at the school and district level lots more data to make informed policy and budget choices,” she said. ‘”Is it math or reading that’s a problem? Is it third-grade or fourth-grade math?’ This is going to give them data that they should be smart enough to use.”
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