By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 25, 2007
The Bush administration yesterday unveiled an education plan that would allow poor students at chronically failing public schools to use federal vouchers to attend private and religious schools, angering Democrats who vowed to fight the measure.
The private school vouchers, which on average would be worth $4,000, were among a series of proposals presented yesterday that President Bush hopes will be included in the reauthorization of his signature education initiative, No Child Left Behind.
In a conference call with reporters, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said the initiatives were necessary to help students in the nation's 1,800 most persistently under-performing schools.
"How do we answer the question: What do we do for kids trapped in schools that continue to under-perform?" she said. "Is the promise of No Child Left Behind real?"
Democrats in Congress assailed the plan -- which also would allow low-performing schools to override union contracts or become charter schools despite state laws limiting their creation -- and expressed concern that the politically charged proposals could delay the reauthorization, which is scheduled for this year.
"Ideological proposals like private school vouchers and attacks on collective-bargaining agreements won't help this reauthorization move forward on shared, bipartisan goals," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
The plan also includes measures that enjoy bipartisan support. It addresses one of the most persistent criticisms of No Child Left Behind: that schools that meet state testing goals overall but fail in a small category must provide all students in the school with free tutoring or the option to transfer to another school. Under the president's proposal, only students in the categories that failed would receive those options.
The initiative also would hold schools accountable for test scores in science starting in 2008 (the current program holds schools accountable only in reading and math). It also would for the first time require states to publicize their performance on a national test that states are already required to administer.
Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, attacked the administration's proposal to allow some school administrators to override labor contracts to push out bad teachers and attract better ones.
"The No Child Left Behind law was designed to close the achievement gap, not to strip collective-bargaining agreements," he said.
The president's plan also would allow mayors to take over chronically failing schools and for those schools to transform themselves into charter schools, even if that would violate a state law capping the number of charter schools.
It was the private school voucher proposal, modeled on a plan implemented in the District in 2004, that seemed to anger some Democrats. The program in the Distict provides $7,500 vouchers, known in the administration as scholarships, to about 1,800 students, from kindergartners to high school seniors, attending 58 private schools.
"We have seen that the sky doesn't fall when kids go to private schools with public money," said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, who was briefed on the plan in advance by White House staff. "So school choice is not nearly as scary as some congressmen have led us to believe."
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, called the voucher proposal a "bad idea" that was unlikely to gain traction in Congress. "Private school vouchers, which would divert taxpayer dollars away from public schools that need them, have been rejected in the past and nothing has changed to make them acceptable now," he said in a statement.
Spellings insisted that the administration will try to push through even those proposals likely to face stiff resistance in Congress. "I plan to fight hard for the whole kit and caboodle," she said.