Education reform, the top domestic priority of President Bush, took center stage on January 8, overshadowing, even briefly, the four-month long war on terrorism. While Bush proudly signed into law the $26.5 billion education bill, the measure's positive impact on education is anyone's guess.
The heart and soul of the law lies with testing and accountability by American public schools. The law calls for schools to test students in reading and math in the third through eighth grades. The type of tests used and the way in which students are prepared for them is left up to the states.
High-quality tests could cost as much as $7 billion, which is half the amount earmarked for such tests this year. Schools have little incentive to pay for tests. They also won't be punished if the tests they use do not meet national standards.
In order for schools to do the required testing, Congress and the Bush administration must provide the necessary funding, according to Andrew Rotherham, author of the policy paper at the Washington-D.C.-based Progressive Policy Institute on which Bush's education reform bill was based.
States must define what score students need to pass the tests. Having schools define the word proficiency is risky, to say the least.
Dan Koretz, an education professor at Harvard University who specializes in high-stakes assessments, warns that if the bar is set too high, schools may take shortcuts, which could lead to overemphasis on test preparation and cheating. The expanded mandate by the new law may not work as Bush envisioned.
"If we really want to see education improved, the federal government should turn it over to parents and local elected officials, rather than seek to remedy the problem from outside the [Capitol] Beltway," noted David Salisbury, direct of the Center for educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, a nonpartisan public policy research foundation in Washington, D.C.
Under the new law, taxpayer money will be spent on various federal education programs and to pay for failing public schools. In three years, students attending failing schools will receive money for tutoring or transportation to another school.
"If we really want to hold schools accountable, we should provide options to parents who wish to select a private or parochial school for their child," Salisbury pointed out. "Allowing a tax credit to parents who choose private schools or to taxpayers to contribute to a scholarship fund for poor children to attend private school are examples of measures that would go a long way to returning control to parents."
Salisbury feels that giving more money to failing schools is the wrong solution. Allowing students in failing schools to switch to another public school is only "a modicum of improvement," he claimed.
"The better solution is to allow parents to select the best school, public or private, for their child and let the money follow the student," he added.
Margo Turner is a veteran journalist with experience covering Congress and federal agencies. She lives in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C.