Washington Post: President Bush's education budget isn't as generous as it is made out to be; his laudable goals of improving student performance, school accountability and teacher quality all take money. The administration ought to be willing to provide it, and if the president won't, Congress should. As the measure makes its way through both the Senate and the House, though, members need to look carefully at more than just the financial bottom line.
They need to make sure that the bill maintains the federal commitment to targeting most aid to poor students. Efforts to give states broader latitude in using federal funds must not come at the expense of those who most need help. Requirements for increased student testing must be set up in a way that is most likely to produce clear and usable information about student progress. Flexibility for states and local districts must be balanced against the ability to compare performance as students move from one grade to the next, and to compare jurisdictions within states. Incentives should focus on the quality of systems put in place, not just on the speed with which they're implemented.
Radical restructuring: The legislation calls for aid to schools that are found to be failing, and for sanctions, including radical restructuring, for those that fail to improve after three years. The president had proposed, among those sanctions, giving students in those schools $1,500 vouchers that they could use to help pay private school tuition. The administration dodged a divisive fight over vouchers by accepting a compromise that provides for those children to move elsewhere in the public system and allows them to use a portion of a failing school's federal funds to buy "supplementary services," including tutoring and summer school, but not to pay private tuition. (We should note that a Washington Post Co. subsidiary is among private companies offering students after-school programs.) This compromise may amount to a more realistic promise to low-income parents, since the money available per student will come closer to paying for those kinds of services than to covering tuition bills.
But it ducks the fact that experiments in helping make private school an option for poor students in failed public schools are worth a try. There is no denying that years of attempted reform, particularly in urban areas, have produced dismal results. The students who are able to do so have fled from those situations; those who have no alternatives suffer terrible consequences. On this, as on other education issues, the ability of the federal government to solve the problem is limited, because the bulk of the money and the decision-making rests at the local level. But if lawmakers truly aim to help children rather than to protect the system and the adults who run it, they ought not shy away from reasonable efforts to test potential remedies, including competition.