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Big money, big battles

The United States has seen education-reform drives before. But thistime, lawmakers aren't accepting excuses for failure, even in poordistricts.

"If we do these things - end social promotion, turn around failing schools, build modern ones, support qualified teachers, promote innovation, competition, and discipline - we will begin to meet our generation's historic responsibility to create 21st-century schools." - President Clinton, Jan. 19, 1999

Nations don't often get a shot at dramatically improving how they educate children. Schools rank below wars to be fought, jobs to be created, or prisons to be built.

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The US faces a new century with a surging economy, a waning crime rate, and no foreign enemy that yet claims the stature of an "evil empire." But alarming numbers of its students can barely read, and employers are scrambling to find workers fit for higher-skilled jobs.

In such a climate, education is emerging as the new national-security issue. Both the president and many state governors launched similar offensives in recent weeks on the problem of failing schools, including new rewards for success, consequences for failure, and more options for families trapped in bad schools.

President Clinton's 2000 budget proposes a record $22.3 billion for elementary and secondary education, touching on everything from reducing class size to expanding after-school programs to reach about 7 percent of the 15 million children who are home alone after school. Mr. Clinton is also resubmitting a proposal to Congress to support $25 billion in bonds for school construction.

And if the president can win support from lawmakers, at least $15 billion of federal funds that go to remedial education will carry a new condition: To be eligible, states and school districts must agree to improve or close failing schools, test teachers, tighten discipline, and end social promotion.

In many cases, states have been out in front of Washington on these issues.

*Michigan's Gov. John Engler (R) led off his Jan. 28 State of the State speech with a pledge to make Michigan the "Smart State," and limited his comment to the president's education proposals to two words: "I agree."

*California Gov. Gray Davis (D) cited the "overwhelming need to improve our system of public education" as his top priority. He proposes adding $444 million to the $43 billion that his state is already spending on education, along with broad new powers to hold teachers and principals accountable for pupil achievement.

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*New York Gov. George Pataki (R) called for $1.3 billion for school construction in New York City and urged ending tenure for principals. "To shield principals from accountability is to condone failure," he said.

*Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening (D) labeled his State of the State address "an education blueprint for our future" and promised $1 billion to build schools over the next four years.

More than prosperity is driving these efforts. What marks this round of reform is mounting evidence that all children can learn to higher standards - and the conviction that the United States can't afford to have 40 percent of its citizens excluded from good jobs by poor reading skills.

More than 6 in 10 employers say that most high school graduates do not have the skills needed to succeed on the job, according to a survey released last month by Public Agenda, an education research group. The most respected indicator of literacy, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, puts the number of students at risk from poor reading at between 25 and 40 percent. Updated scores are due out this week.

Until very recently, conventional wisdom held that poor children shouldn't be expected to learn to high standards. That view has been challenged by surges in student achievement in states such as North Carolina and Texas, where students have lagged behind the national average on test scores. In Texas, the biggest gains were made by Hispanic and black students.

The message is that improvement is possible, even in schools with a history of poor performance. Moreover, these gains are the result of sustained policy choices, not just extraordinary teachers.

Uri Treisman, director of the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, credits the state for its system of accountability that rates schools by how well they serve poor children. "In Texas, massively increased numbers of black and poor children are taking and passing advanced placement tests. Once you raise expectations and hold all kids accountable, performance goes up," Mr. Treisman says.

Many governors are urging their states to adopt some version of the policies that drove test scores higher in Texas and North Carolina: standards for each grade level, statewide testing linked to standards, consequences for good and bad results, more flexibility for educators to meet the standards, and a shift in resources to poor students.

At the same time, many governors are asking state legislatures for more authority to close down failing schools. "Allegiance to our children requires that we no longer sit idly by while a school district steadfastly fails to educate its children," said Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge (R) in his Feb. 2 State of the State address. He is proposing legislation that allows the state to "declare academic bankruptcy in cases of chronic and pervasive failure," while allowing districts to opt out of state regulations.

Many Republican governors are expanding options for families to quit public schools altogether. Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) is calling for a pilot voucher program to give students a way out of low-performing schools, even as he beefs up his state's model accountability system. And Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) credits the "aggressive competition" generated by a landmark school-choice program with spurring reform in Milwaukee. The city's public schools now guarantee that students will read at grade level or the city will pay for a tutor.

The big federal education programs are about to face a similar scrutiny. For the first time, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 faces reauthorization under the eye of a Republican Congress. ESEA comprises more than 60 federal programs, and some GOP lawmakers have called for converting at least part of the program into block grants to be passed directly to the states.

Critics charge that ESEA has been a failed program because federal money has been poured into programs without evidence of their effectiveness.

"Each time that the most recent evaluation shows that the Title I program is not working, we're told that the changes we've made haven't had a chance to demonstrate their efficacy," says Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. "How much good money are we going to throw after bad?"

Title I officials respond that the new focus on high standards will improve the program. "You can't expect an effort that has had only 2 percent of the dollars to turn around a low-performing school, unless as a lever that can be used in concert with what states and locals are doing," says Mary Jean LeTendre, who directs the $8 billion Title I program for the US Department of Education. "There hasn't been lots of attention to low-performing schools," she adds. "We've been focused on fixing kids; now we're fixing schools to help the kids."

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