Article Published in The Washington Times
After 35 years of largely subsidizing failure, the federal government finally may require measurable academic results for the billions spent on public education.
That’s the historic importance of an agreement by House-Senate Education Conferees that all states must test all children in grades 3-8 according to state-developed standards in core subjects. But the most significant reforms may prove to be the advances for parental choice and bilingual reform in the fine print of the massive bill that President George W. Bush sought as his top domestic priority.
Unless 11th-hour squabbles over special-education funding levels torpedo the agreement, the education bill should arrive on President Bush’s desk by Christmas. When signed into law, it will mark the second major federal victory this year for the principle of parental choice in education. Under a “supplemental services” section of the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act, parents of children stuck in chronically failing public schools will be able to use their entire share of Title I aid – amounting to approximately $500 to $1,000 per child – to pay for private tutorial services, after-school instruction, or summer school from the private provider of a parent’s choice to help boost their kids’ achievement.
Significantly, the conferees decided against making children wait another three years while testing data are used to document failure anew. Instead, the provision was made retroactive, so that parents will be able to use their Title I subsidies to seek out tutors or other providers (private, faith-based ones being among the options) promptly where a school’s failure is already a matter of record. Schools on the brink of failure would have to set aside 20 percent of their Title I money for parents to use in selecting supplemental services, should the schools not improve.
Last summer, the first federal-level victory for parental choice came in congressional enactment of the tax bill championed by President Bush. The law expanded tax-advantaged Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) to cover expenses connected with private or public schooling of children in kindergarten through grade 12. ESAs had been restricted to the costs of higher education. The new law increases the annual limit on contributions to an ESA — sometimes called an education IRA — from $500 to $2,000.
The conferees’ precedent-shattering agreement also contains bold reforms of federal bilingual education programs. In fact, the nation’s more than 3.5 million English learners (three-quarters of whom are Spanish-speaking) will be among the biggest winners when President Bush signs “No Child Left Behind” into law. Important reforms include:
*States choose the approach best suited to the needs of their English learners. Currently, three-fourths of federal bilingual funds are reserved for programs that teach in students’ non-English, native language. The new plan eliminates that bias and instead provides funding in the form of formula grants to states to allocate however they see fit.
*Improving English fluency is the bottom line. States receiving formula grants must in turn demonstrate that they are making significant progress toward improving English fluency, or risk losing some federal funds. All students must be tested in English after three consecutive years in U.S. schools. The plan also requires that bilingual teachers must themselves be fluent in English.
*Expanded parental options and greater accountability. Schools must notify parents why their child was selected for bilingual education, how specifically the programs will help their child, and when their child can be expected to graduate to an English-speaking classroom. Parents have the right to remove their child immediately from bilingual programs and to choose their child’s instructional program if more than one is offered.
“For too long, Limited English Proficient students have been denied the chance to master English and succeed academically,” said House Education Committee Chairman John Boehner. “They’ve been trapped in classes taught in their native language that never give them an early chance to learn English, and federal education policy has helped keep them there.”
By honoring the principle that parents can best choose where and how to educate their children, and by addressing the critical reality that never before in our nation’s history has it been more critical for young people to possess strong English language skills, these reforms represent important advances toward improving American public education.
— Robert Holland is a Senior Fellow and Don Soifer is Executive Vice President at the Lexington Institute.
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