Bush takes his education plan to the public
President George W. Bush
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President George W. Bush took his ambitious public education overhaul plan to the public with a visit to a Washington elementary school renowned for its internal accountability efforts and the high performance rates of its students.
He followed that visit with a cordial coffee meeting at the White House with members of the House committee charged with oversight of education legislation.
Bush toured the Merritt Extended Elementary School in Washington's northeast sector. For the past three years, the school has conducted a concentrated series of student achievement tests, the results of which have been used to rate the school principal's job performance.
The results of those tests, and Principal Nancy Shannon's attention to detail and relationships with parents, are examples of the type of agenda Bush would like to enact nationally, he said.
"It's always a good sign when principals get standing ovations from teachers and parents," Bush said, greeting Shannon. "There's a strong sense of accountability here, which means there is a strong sense of the possible.
"The quality of a school depends on the quality of a principal," Bush said. "When you find a good principal, a CEO of a school, you find a school that achieves what we all want. And this is every child learning."
Fulfilling a promise
Bush spent more than a year on the presidential campaign trail presenting himself as a candidate who would become the "education president." Touting student testing regimes in Texas, where he enjoyed a term and a half as governor, Bush pledged education reform would be his first legislative priority once he reached the Oval Office.
Three days after his Saturday inauguration, Bush fulfilled that promise, sending Congress an education overhaul bill that incorporates accountability measures as its centerpiece.
The bill includes initiatives giving states more flexibility over how to spend federal education dollars. Federal money, which in most cases comprises only 6 percent or 7 percent of a state's full education budget, would be transferred to the states in block grants, rather than piecemeal based on percentages for federally mandated programs.
Republicans in Congress began converting federal education funding to block grants in early 1995, when they assumed the congressional majority.
Bush's bill would hold individual schools accountable for their performance by testing students on their reading and math abilities more regularly -- perhaps by the year.
Throughout the campaign year, Bush said schools whose students do not show acceptable rates of improvement on those tests would be given every opportunity to turn their failure rates around.
After three years, however, if performance rates do not improve significantly, much of the federal money earmarked for those struggling schools would be broken apart and distributed to parents in the form of payments -- or vouchers, according to some critics -- that may be used to transfer students to private schools or more successful local schools.
Congressional Democrats are especially wary of vouchers, arguing that implementation of such a program could leech money away from the schools that most desperately need the financial help.
The minority party presented its own education plan earlier in the week. It doesn't include voucher provisions.
Still, in a show of solidarity, the chairman and ranking members of the congressional committees charged with education policy accompanied Bush on his tour of the Merritt school. That group included U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Labor, Education and Pensions Committee.
Kennedy is a sharp critic of vouchers. Bush didn't mention his affinity for vouchers during his Merritt visit.
He did play up his belief in testing, which, he argued, should be conducted on a yearly basis.
"I am talking about accountability, and when I say accountability, I mean testing to determine whether or not our children are learning," he said.
"It is important to test every year to make sure no child is left behind," Bush continued, adding, "I worry about a system that periodically tests, because you may test one year, and everything is fine.
"But you may go back four years later and test, and find out everything isn't fine. You've missed four years of opportunity."
Children are wont to complain about testing regularly, Bush added, saying, "Well, I'm sorry you're sick of tests, but we adults want to know if you're learning."
Miller warns Bush on vouchers
The president held a joint meeting this week with Republican and Democratic members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee to further his discussions.
Speaking to reporters, Bush thanked Chairman John Boehner, R-Ohio, and ranking member George Miller, D-California, for coming to the White House.
"(Education) is a priority of mine, and it is a priority of the members around the table," he said. "I am absolutely confident we can forge a bill that achieves a number of objectives.... And the most important objective is that every child can learn."
Following the meeting, Miller told the Reuters news agency that he asked Bush to hold off on the voucher provisions, saying they could sink an otherwise workable piece of legislation.
"I just don't think he's going to be successful, and I don't think he wants the good parts he's proposing to fail because of vouchers," Miller said. "I told him my feelings about this, that 'you're wasting your energy. It's a diversion.' "
Reuters contributed to this report.
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U.S. Department of Education
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