The federal government is "reaching a moment of decision" on education policy, President Bush said Wednesday as he laid out his bottom line for House-Senate negotiators not moving as quickly as he'd like to overhaul the nation's schools.
"We're coming down to the wire. We've got to finish strong and make sure the accountability measure are right," Mr. Bush said.
The president used a speech to the National Urban League to prod lawmakers working this week on Capitol Hill to hammer out differences between House and Senate education bills that would bring several major changes to the federal system, foremost among them the requirement that students be tested annually as a measure school performance. The House and Senate versions differ over how to define a failing school and what to do with one that's been identified.
Mr. Bush called the failure of so many urban schools "a great and continuing scandal" but pressed lawmakers to give those schools ample time to turn themselves around.
"Some of my allies in reform want to require dramatically improved performance immediately, everywhere. I appreciate aiming high, but setting impossible expectations means setting no expectations. The undoable never gets done," he said.
Instead, Mr. Bush wants schools to be given three years to improve. Failing that, parents of students in those schools would be given public money to seek private tutoring for their children or to transfer them to a better public school. Mr. Bush long ago conceded to critics and gave up his original proposal to give parents vouchers for private school tuition.
Both the House and Senate approved separate versions of education reform last spring and negotiators are meeting this week to hammer out differences on how much to spend on schools and what to do with schools that aren't performing. Despite earlier pleas from Mr. Bush, who wanted a bill to sign before the August congressional recess, lawmakers do not expect to have anything on the president's desk until September.
One of the biggest hang-ups is over spending. With a $33-billion price tag, the Senate bill spends more than Mr. Bush or the House wants. The House legislation would give public schools $24 billion.
Both the House and Senate would require that schools annually test students in math and reading in grades three through eight and once in high school. Students at schools in which scores don't improve could use federal money for tutoring or transportation to another public school.
All schools would get more flexibility in their use of federal funds, while under the Senate bill a small number of states and school districts could compete for a pilot program giving them even fewer restrictions.
In the House version, school districts could use up to half their federal money without supervision, with 100 school districts two per state eligible for a program that would free schools from virtually all spending restrictions.
Without wadintoo deeply into the specific differences, Bush outlined his imperatives for acceptable legislation:
States must be allowed to choose their own tests, which should be consistent within a state from school district to school district so that parents can compare performance.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress should be used to provide independent evidence that state tests are rigorous and real. "It's not a national test and we certainly don't need one. But we do need a national report card," Mr. Bush said.
The president asked some 2,000 Urban League members to help him lobby Congress for action. "We're on the verge of dramatic reform. ... These proposals are within weeks of becoming reality," he told the civil rights group.
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