Negotiators OK education bill requiring reading, math tests for millions of students

Wednesday, December 12th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ House and Senate negotiators have approved President Bush's top domestic priority, finishing an education bill that would require millions of students in grades three through eight to take annual reading and math tests. For the first time, their scores could affect how federal aid to their schools is allocated and spent.

The bill, which also requires schools to come up with plans to close the achievement gap between poor and middle-class students, is virtually certain to win final passage in the next few days.

``These reforms mean new hope for students in failing schools, and new choices for parents who want the best education possible for their children,'' said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who chaired the House-Senate committee that approved the final version of the bill.

Bush on Wednesday celebrated the agreement by inviting Boehner and the other top three House and Senate negotiators to the Oval Office.

``It's a good sign for the country about what can happen when the leaders in Washington decide to work together,'' said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.

The bill now goes to the House and Senate for final votes. Lawmakers expect it to be on Bush's desk by next week.

While Boehner and others called the measure groundbreaking, some observers complained about the final product.

Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, called it ``a tremendous disappointment,'' saying it would force states to develop and give the annual tests without enough funding from Washington _ at a time when they are being hit hard by a recession.

``Considering this bleak fiscal climate, these unfunded and underfunded mandates are irresponsible,'' Chase said. ``The broad policy goals are laudable, but the lack of support to states suffering an economic decline is lamentable.''

Overall, the education bill authorizes $26.5 billion next year for elementary and secondary education _ about $8 billion more than this year and about $4 billion more than Bush requested, but nearly $6 billion less than Senate Democrats wanted.

The annual reading and math tests for all students in grades three through eight would tell states which schools are effective. Those with persistently low test scores would have to give some of their federal aid to students for tutoring or transportation to another public school. More aid would flow to schools whose scores don't improve for two years in a row, but if scores don't improve afterward, a school's staff could be changed.

States and school districts also would get more freedom over how they spend federal dollars, but they'd be required to send annual ``report cards'' showing a school's standardized test scores compared to others locally and statewide.

Also included is Bush's signature reading program, which gives schools nearly $1 billion per year for the next five years in hopes that every student will be able to read by third grade.

The package is opposed by several groups that say it will force states and school districts to spend millions they don't have. Opponents include the National School Boards Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures and the American Association of School Administrators.

Two senators _ James Jeffords, I-Vt., and Paul Wellstone, D-Minn. _ said they would oppose the measure. They said Republicans' refusal to include mandatory funding for disabled students made the bill incomplete.

House Republicans twice rejected the special education funding measure.

``This education bill requires our nation's schools to make major improvements within a short time frame,'' Jeffords said. ``This is a worthy goal, but one which cannot be met unless the money is provided to give these schools the technical assistance and expertise they so desperately need to carry out the reform effort.''

A longtime special education advocate, Jeffords cited the need for more school spending when he left the Republican Party last May, handing control of the Senate to Democrats.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who sponsored the special education measure, said the White House persuaded House Republicans to block the measure to ``punish'' Jeffords.

``I know that the reason the White House is so adamantly opposed to this is that it will make Jim Jeffords look good,'' he said.

Jeffords himself said he thought the administration opposed the funding because it wasn't a priority this year. ``They'll find it when they need it _ about three years from now,'' he said, referring to the 2004 elections.