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Education reform is being derailed by House Democrats

Just when it looked as though we would get a serious school-reform plan through Congress, House Democrats have moved in and mugged it beyond recognition.

The heart of President Clinton's "Goals 200: Educate America Act" was a council that would set up voluntary, national standards on what students should know and be able to do. Other modern industrial nations already do this.

But the plan for measuring and encouraging student performance standards has been undermined in the House bill by a labor and education subcommittee. The emphasis now is on "opportunity to learn" standards, which are supposed to spell out what schools must make available to students. This might include smaller classes, new technology, competent teachers and up-to-date textbooks.

How was the committee able to change the subject so quickly and divert attention away from curriculum standards? The lever was "fairness" and "equity." The argument goes like this: It's unfair to set standards for students until the quality of schools is taken into account and perhaps equalized.

There's a seductive surface logic to this argument. Many students are in fact handicapped by terrible schools and terrible teachers. But it's not obvious that standards must be postponed until every substandard school is fixed and every poor teacher is replaced.

As Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, says: "We don't abolish medical school exams because not everyone has had the opportunity for top-notch pre-med education. Nor do we say that tests for airline pilots shouldn't count because not everyone has the opportunity to do well on them."

House Democrats are undermining the bipartisan effort worked out among the nation's governors, led by then-Gov. Bill Clinton, and the Bush administration. Why? Turf is surely one reason. Two presidents and many governors built this program without much input from Congress. And old-line Democrats dream of massive school funding from Washington, not commissions on standards with no money to hand out.

But there is also the clash of philosophies. Reformers, like the National Governors' Association, focus on standards, excellence, measuring job skills and preparing the work force for international competition. The most powerful wing of the educational establishment focuses on social equality and student cooperation. This camp opposes elitism and advanced programs (which create a student elite), and fears that minorities will not be able to meet real academic standards.

The National Education Association, always a formidable obstacle to reform, is doing its usual job here. "We've been raising the high bar without worrying about who can jump it in the first place," NEA president Keith Geiger said about standards and testing.

Democrats are responding to a wide array of forces that don't want standards at all. Some are loading the bill down with amendments, perhaps hoping it will sink.

The equity language in the original bill was bad enough. It talks of "student performance standards that all students, including disadvantaged students . . . (and) students with disabilities . . . will be expected to achieve." This means standards that brilliant and retarded students will both be able to handle. Someone close to the committee discussions said: "No one can go any faster than the most handicapped person." This is yet another indication that ideology and the suspicion of brains and student achievement are big problems for some on the Democratic side.

Republicans fear that voluntary "opportunity to learn" standards will become compulsory. Diane Ravitch, an assistant secretary of education in the Bush administration, writes: "You do not have to be a seer to predict that the new standards . . . would permit federal regulation of curricula, textbooks, facilities and instructional materials."

An amendment to the bill by Rep. Jack Reed, D-R.I., seems to convert voluntary standards into mandatory ones. It would make future federal funding dependent on "corrective action" by school systems that don't meet the standards. Litigation is another route. Parents may successfully sue a school for not meeting the federal "opportunity to learn" standards.

The school-reform bill was not supposed to go through all this. After all, there has been a strong bipartisan consensus on its content for years. The nation's governors, led by Bill Clinton, were in basic agreement with the Bush administration. What it comes down to now is a battle between the so-called New Democrats and old-line liberals.

In a May letter to Secretary of Education Richard Riley, South Carolina Gov. Carroll Campbell, a Republican, wrote that the revised bill "comes dangerously close to derailing our hard-won emphasis on student achievement . . . and threatens to turn the clock back on four years' worth of bipartisan teamwork."

Campbell is right. Too much effort has been invested in much-needed school reform for it to be wasted now. Is the president going to do something about this or not?

Universal Press Syndicate