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CONGRESS WATCH
REFORMING PUBLIC EDUCATION GAINS MOMENTUM
By Margo Turner
April 4, 2001

Education advocates support three House bills, each of which is aimed at improving the quality of the nation's schools and has a good chance of passing if efforts to streamline federal education funding do not create a stumbling block on Capitol Hill.

Representatives from four education organizations testified March 29 before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce regarding the "No Child Left Behind Act of 2001" (H.R, 1), which is based on President Bush's plan to overhaul the federal role in education; the "Excellence and Accountability in Education Act" (H.R.) 340; and the "Public Education Reinvestment, Reinvention and Responsibility" bill (H.R. 345).

Kenneth L. Connor, president of the Family Research Council, praised H.R. 1 for placing emphasis on academic excellence and not social priorities. The bill would allow states and local schools to have greater flexibility and authority over education spending and decision-making, Connor explained.

When states and schools are empowered to make these decisions and to be creative with their resources, "teachers will teach and children will learn," he said.

The Family Research Council supports tests that are designed to help students, parents, teachers and schools at the local level, Connor said. Congress should strike a provision from H.R. 1 that would require a federally mandated state testing standard and assessment in science, he told the House panel. ""Reading, writing and math are the building blocks of academic achievement and we must focus on these."

H.R. 340 address Title 1 and improving the quality of teaching, two areas of concern to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), according to Randi Weingarten, AFT vice president and president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City.

H.R. 340 would "strengthen Title 1's focus on helping disadvantaged children reach high academic standards by significantly increasing the authorization level, providing greater targeting of the funding, requiring greater accountability for student progress, maintaining the 50 percent threshold to operate schoolwide programs and providing support to improve the quality the state assessments," Weingarten said.

As for improving the quality of teaching, Weingarten said the AFT is especially pleased with the bill's focus on assisting high-poverty schools to provide adequate compensation for their teachers, which would help "high-need schools" struggling to attract qualified teachers.

She pointed out that H.R. 340 also addresses other areas of national education concerns, such as a class-size reduction program, technology and afterschool and school safety activities.

The American Association of School Administrators (AASA) backs H.R. 345, also known as "Three R's." The bill would target funds to schools with large concentrations of high-need students and place clear accountability for achievement squarely on schools, school districts and states rather than of children and create "bigger funding streams" that drive a greater percentage of federal funds to the local level, testified Dr. Paul Houston, AASA executive director.

"We believe districts serving concentrations of students who need assistance in meeting the new content standards and districts that lack the resources to meet the challenges they face ought to be the primary focus of federal education programs," Houston said.

Houston said H.R. 345 also includes the consolidation of a few similar programs, mostly in Title 11, which the AASA supports.

"We will support consolidated programs that have the clear purpose of moving high-need students and students in low resource schools to meet the new high state standards," he said. "AASA will support program consolidation that is accountable to results in student achievement not counting participants or hours of participation."

All three bills under consideration by the House panel provide essential framework for more effective federal investments in K-12 education, noted Keith E. Bailey, representing the Business Coalition of Excellence in Education.

Bailey said the coalition would like to see a different relationship between the federal government and tube states when it comes to funding. Federal legislation should not include categorical program models and the more flexible, less well-defined block grant proposals that impose little direction on priorities on national investments, he said.

"We urge you to be clear about what the federal investment is for, what national needs and priorities must be addressed, but set standards of local authorities have enough flexibility to achieve the results you are asking them to provide," he said.

Education advocates differ in their views over school choice, which also could be a bone of contention among House members.

Weingarten said the AFT believes school choice should only be available under the public school system where options must be held to the same standards and be accountable for the use of public funds.

The Family Research Council is convinced that the best way to achieve real choice for all students is through education savings accounts and tax credits, such as the Arizona tax credit law, Connor said. Since the Arizona law took effect in 1997, he said more than 30,000 people have contributed money to private scholarships, raising approximately $13.2 million. During the 1999-2000 school year, he added, more than 7,000 students benefited from the Arizona plan.

AASA encourages school districts to provide all the enrollment options parents desire, Houston states\d. "Permitting some students to use scarce federal funds to attend private or parochial schools and then imposing huge new administrative costs of public schools to track such students is an idea whose time has passed," he said.

Bailey said the country needs bold legislative language that does not waste years of children's educational lives during implementation.

"I urge you to remain firm on the key system reforms you propose in the pending legislation related to standards, assessments and accountability so that the final result is the strongest bipartisan bill possible," he told the House panel.


Margo Turner, a veteran journalist with experience covering Congress and federal agencies, lives in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C.

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