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Bush’s education moves encouraging

It is an encouraging sign, given the rancor surrounding some of his cabinet appointments, that President Bush seemed to hit a fairly bipartisan tone in his proposal to improve education.

The initiative met with praise from moderate Republicans and Democrats, a necessary first step if any constructive debate is to occur as the proposal is fashioned into the language of law.

If the nominations of former Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo, for attorney general and Gale A. Norton for secretary of the interior were payback to the right wing of the Republican Party for its compliant silence during the convention and campaign, Bush shows with his education proposal that he can move toward the areas of agreement in the center.

It is especially noteworthy that Bush’s proposal does not seem to lean heavily on vouchers as a cure for what ails the country’s education system. In fact, in his remarks announcing his plan, he did not mention the word, saying only that parents and students in bad schools that fail to improve should have other “options.” He invited debate on what those options should be, a position that many viewed as signaling a willingness to compromise on the matter.

Nor does Bush advocate, as his party did in 1994, the elimination of the Department of Education. Bush, in fact, sees a new and more powerful role for the department as an overseer of the accountability he wants to build into the economic packages aimed at improving schools.

If vouchers are pushed to the background in the early rounds of discussion over this initiative, perhaps there is hope the spotlight can fall on what is essential to reform. For at the heart of the education crisis, in too many cases, is a racial and class division accompanied by the frustration and anger that smolders beneath bad test scores and low graduation rates.

The evidence is abundant: inner city schools with majority populations of people of color, out-of-date textbooks, decrepit facilities and student bodies languishing in underachievement, violence and despair. Compare that scene with many suburban schools that are new, well equipped, with largely white student bodies where the talk is of college and the future.

Of course there are exceptions, model inner-city schools that receive attention and money and have heroic teachers and administrators. And there may be much to learn from some of those exceptions.

More money certainly will not guarantee a turnaround. But demanding accountability and layering on new testing regimens will not work without new resources and considerable effort aimed at reducing the inequities state by state.

National Catholic Reporter, February 2, 2001