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Background: Education Reform

December 18, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST
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SPOKESMAN: On this vote, the yeas are 381, the no’s are 41. The conference report is agreed to…

KWAME HOLMAN: Last Thursday the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a long- awaited agreement on education reform.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: I’m grateful to my colleagues on both sides of the aisle who’ve worked hard to turn the President’s vision for education reform into a reality.

KWAME HOLMAN: This afternoon, the Senate held its own lopsided vote in favor of the education bill.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: This new approach and the reforms we’ve developed to implement it reflects the best thinking of both parties and both branches of our government.

KWAME HOLMAN: The measure contains the main features President Bush laid out in January when he installed education reform as the centerpiece of his domestic agenda.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We must confront the scandal of illiteracy in America, seen most clearly in high-poverty schools where nearly 70% of fourth graders are unable to read at a basic level. We must address the low standing of America test scores amongst industrialized nations in math and science.

KWAME HOLMAN: The education bill would for the first time mandate annual state-designed reading and math tests for students in grades 3 through 8, beginning in 2005. States also would be required to have only highly qualified teachers in the classroom by then. Schools that fail to meet new state standards would get extra federal aid to improve their curriculums and train teachers, but schools that fail to improve eventually would have to allow students to get special help, transfer to another public school, or in the worst-case scenario would be taken over by the state. To help schools move toward meeting the new requirements, Congress will increase education spending by 20% for the school year already under way, bringing the federal contribution to schools to more than $22 billion, with the promise of more to come. For the first time, the primary focus of the increased funding is on school systems with the neediest students. One item not in the bill is publicly funded vouchers to pay for private school tuition. President Bush called for them, but didn’t push hard for the controversial idea in Congress.

SEN. TIM HUTCHINSON: Frankly, I wish we’d done it. I wish we had done what the President campaigned on and what he proposed doing in taking part of that Title I money, the federal dollars for low-income children, and in chronically failing schools that have failed three successive years, giving them the opportunity to take that and to use it in private schools, to use it with tutors. And that has been watered down and diluted and basically removed.

KWAME HOLMAN: And unhappiness with parts of the education bill lasted right up to today’s final Senate vote. Former Republican and now independent Jim Jeffords left the GOP in part because he hoped to secure more funding for education programs for disabled students. Today he said the education bill fails to address the disabled adequately.

SEN. JIM JEFFORDS: The federal under funding of special education leads to state and local districts spending approximately $20 million more in Vermont from local sources than would be necessary if federal funding were provided at the level Congress promised in the original law. In 1975, we in the Congress authorized the federal government to pay up to 40% of each state’s excess cost of children with disabilities. It has been 26 years since we made that commitment, and we have failed to keep our promise. We are currently providing only 16% of the original 40% promised.

KWAME HOLMAN: Democrat Paul Wellstone of Minnesota spoke for local school officials who fear the federal government is mandating improved performance measured by tests without giving states enough funding.

SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE: You cannot realize this goal of leaving no child behind unless the resources are there to go with the testing. The tests don’t bring about more teachers. The tests don’t lead to smaller class size. The tests don’t lead to good textbooks. The tests don’t lead to better technology. The tests don’t mean that the children come to kindergarten ready to learn. All of these things have to change, colleagues.

KWAME HOLMAN: President Bush said he will sign the education reform bill into law early next year.