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Background: Grading the System

September 3, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST
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KWAME HOLMAN: When Congress overwhelmingly endorsed President Bush ‘s education reforms this spring, it was hailed as proof that Democrats and Republicans could put aside their differences when it came to education.

SEN. BILL NELSON: I believe this bill creates a framework through which we can reach every student, be it an inner-city student, a rural student, a physically challenged student, a low-income student, a suburban student, or a learning- impaired student.

KWAME HOLMAN: The bills passed by the Senate and the House of Representatives mirrored the major reforms President Bush called for, including the centerpiece, student testing.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: We need to know whether children are learning. If you do not love children, you will just socially promote them and allow them to go forward, and not confront the difficult problem that they are falling behind.

KWAME HOLMAN: Both the House and Senate bills would require annual state reading and math tests for children in grades three through eight; schools that don’t show improvement in scores after one year would get extra federal aid to improve curriculums and train teachers; schools that don’t improve after two years must allow students to transfer to another public school; and schools that don’t show improvement in test scores after three years must allow students to use Title I funds, money directed to schools in low- income areas, for tutoring or for transportation to another public school.

But despite agreement on those basic principles of reform, the House and Senate remain apart on a few key issues. The biggest is cost. The House called for spending $23 billion on education during the fiscal year that starts in October, but the Senate-passed bill would spend nearly twice that much.

And there are other differences: The House wants tougher standards for measuring a school’s progress toward improvement than does the Senate. The two bills also differ on the level of flexibility school districts would have in spending federal dollars. Negotiations between a handful of members from each chamber dragged on for weeks. Last month President Bush prodded them.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: This Congress needs to get an education reform bill on my desk before the summer recess. We had a bill pass out of the House by a broad margin, a bill pass out of the Senate by a broad margin. There is no need for further delay. It is time to get a good reform bill.

KWAME HOLMAN: Nonetheless, Congress was unable to bridge differences over the education bill before leaving town for the month-long August recess.

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD: The committee staffs are going to work the entire month of August on some of the thornier questions between the two bills.

KWAME HOLMAN: Members will try again on education reform after Labor Day.