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Senate approves education reform

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Senate gave final congressional approval Tuesday to an overhaul of the nation's public education system, providing greater spending flexibility for school districts and setting in place strict new accountability measures for low-performing schools.

The bill, called "The No Child Left Behind Act," was approved 87-10. It passed last week in the House of Representatives, and President Bush intends to sign it into law. The bill's passage amounts to the fulfillment of Bush's campaign pledge last year for significant school reform.

"We are giving assurance to the American families that help is on its way," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, who helped shape the measure.

Much of what Bush called for through the 2000 election campaign is included in the final version of the bill.

"These historic reforms will improve our public schools by creating an environment in which every child can learn through real accountability, unprecedented flexibility for states and school districts, greater local control, more options for parents, and more funding for what works," Bush said in a statement read by a White House spokesman minutes after passage.

Drafted as a broad rewrite of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the bill authorizes $26.5 billion in federal spending on education, up $4 billion from the last fiscal year. Its centerpiece is a scheduled regimen of state tests for all students in grades three through eight. The tests are intended to identify schools that are failing to make gains toward ensuring that students are proficient in reading and math.

In addition, a limited portion of student in grades four through eight would take a standardized national test to measure their proficiency.

Schools that regularly miss their goals would be given opportunities and funds to improve over a period of years. Should that poor performance continue, students would be allowed to transfer to other public schools or be given funds to pay for tutors or other instruction. The legislation, however, does not include school vouchers, an idea long supported by Republicans and at one time championed by Bush.

"Personally, I would have preferred giving students and their parents even more options, and giving them a choice of going to a private or religious school as well," said Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Kentucky. "But there's no doubt that the legislation represents a definite improvement over current law."

The law intends to help close the performance gap that has long existed between rich and poor students, as well as between white and minority students. Supporters said it will even the playing field between sectors of the population who receive adequate levels of education and others that have no such guarantee.

In addition, states and local districts would have more flexibility in determining how they spend federal dollars for education, in exchange for the additional accountability measures.

Yet some senators were critical that it did not include additional funding to provide special education services for children with disabilities, an area that is straining school budgets across the country.

"I fear that this bill, without the sufficient resources, will merely highlight our shortcomings," said Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vermont. "I fear it will not provide the assistance, both financial and technical, that schools will need to meet the goals of having every student meet their full academic potential."

"Where are the resources to make sure that all the children in America have the same chance to do well?" said Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minnesota. "And when they don't do well on this test, or the schools don't do well, where are the additional resources to help them? Not in this bill."

Others said that the special education funding issue can be addressed next year, but that schools and students urgently need the reforms the legislation provides now.

"The reason I'm going to vote for this bill is because I'm a pragmatist," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland.

"Does the legislation do everything I want in education to be done? No. Does it do everything the way I want it to be done? No," she said. "But you know what? There is a crying need in our public schools to pass this modernization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act."


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