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Real changes in education

By Greg Pomeroy
web posted August 6, 2001

The House and Senate have each passed separate education reform bills and soon will be finishing a compromise bill to be sent to President Bush. The eventual law will in part represent the federal government's funding of public education for the 2002 fiscal year. The House voted a whopping 384 to 45 to spend $24 billion on education, the Senate an equally bipartisan 91-8 to spend about $33 billion.

There are minor differences between the two bills, including the spending totals, but the similarities allow us to clearly see the future of public education. This future includes more parental choice but not vouchers, more student testing, report cards from individual schools, and more federal money with fewer federal strings. Though our national government is only responsible for about seven percent of all education spending, its influence is strong enough that the work of Congress and the president, our most famous C student, is going to produce a sea change in public education.

It is almost certain that $1 billion will be appropriated each year for the next five years in an effort to have all kids reading at grade level by the third grade. Reading is crucial because it is the basis for almost all other learning. A student has to be able to read, and read well, to solve complex word problems in math or learn about the intricacies of life in the Roman Empire from the history text. In the last 18 years, according to the Department of Education, more than 10 million students have made it to the 12th grade without mastering basic skills in reading. And in the information age reading skills are more important than ever before. The Internet itself is reduced to little more than pictures of movie stars and pilfered music files to anyone without the ability to read.

Another almost certainty is flexibility for schools in exercising their pedagogic muscle. In the House bill 25 school districts in 7 states would be liberated from most federal restrictions; in the Senate bill two school districts per state would be emancipated. A compromise will have to be worked out, but it is obvious that school districts will be freer to educate the way they see fit, and not be played like puppets on purse strings.

Charter schools, individual public schools within a school district that are freer from regulation but provide more accountability than the other schools, will be given more money when the education bill becomes law. These schools often have an educational philosophy and curriculum different from that of the rest of the school district. The District of Columbia and 36 states have laws providing for charter schools, and as of the 1999-2000 school year there were over 1,600 of them. These schools provide at least some choice for parents looking for the best education for their kids.

Also fairly certain to become law is the requirement that schools develop one extra report card each year, one for themselves. This report card will compare the school with other schools, both locally and statewide. Students and parents will be able to easily and thoroughly compare one school with another. This is as overdue as a kid's lost library book. This kind of comparison has gone on with institutions of higher learning for a long time now. Imagine deciding on which college to attend for four years without a thorough examination of various colleges beforehand. We don't do that with high school. Imagine taking a job with a company without knowing how it compares to other companies. Yet we, as a matter of course, send our kids to whatever school is closest to our home, knowing little more about the school other than, well, it's closest to our home.

Compulsory testing is another area that is sure to become law. Schools will be required to annually test students in reading and mathematics in grades three through eight. If students fail, the school fails, and this then would be reflected on the school's report card. But here's the salient element: If a failing school falters and palters for a second year, the students could abscond to a successful public school. No vouchers. No money. No private school. But choice. And enough of it to truly hack away at the atrophying parts of our public school districts. (Charter schools cracked the door to choice, but this legislation pushes it open.)

What about that kid whose parents don't have the resources to get the child across town to a successful school? These kids will be left in a school with fewer students to compete with for the teacher's time, a school that will receive more federal money, and a school that will be, perhaps for the first time, truly motivated to succeed. Furthermore, students in schools that fail for three years will be given federal money for transportation out.

From the establishment of the Boston Latin School of 1635, the oldest public school in the United States, through to this pending legislation, many big steps have been taken in education, both forward and back. Giving parents the choice to move their children out of failing schools is an educational hop, skip and jump onward. Consumer choice produces the fierce fight between competing companies that keeps prices down and quality up in just about every other sector of the economy. That choice has been truant from education since 1635. That is now going to change.

The effect of choice in the lives of the children, whether the kids happen to be studying the noun clause or the Commerce Clause or maybe even how an education bill becomes law, cannot be overstated. The effect of choice in the lives of the parents will be almost as profound because parents will feel a real sense of ownership in the school they pick, even if it is one way across town. As far as education goes, then, we can all be pro choice. We can all be for a parent's right to choose. And this certainly seems to be the case in the Congress, where both bills passed with such rare bipartisanship.

As the English essayist Joseph Addison once noted, "What sculpture is to a block of marble, education is to the human soul." Or as our own president has averred, "I want it to be said that the Bush administration was a results-oriented administration, because I believe the results of focusing our attention and energy on teaching children to read and having an education system that's responsive to the child and to the parents, as opposed to mired in a system that refuses to change, will make America what we want it to be -- a literate country and a hopefuller country." What? Hopefuller? I'm hopefuller already. ESR

Grey Pomeroy is a high school educator and free-lance writer living in Knoxville, Tennessee. He can be reached at gregpomeroy@altavista.com.

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