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Tough steps in education reform

Although few people outside the White House seem to realize it, President Bush's cherished education reform plan is in trouble. After passing both the House and Senate with big, bipartisan majorities, it is stuck in a conference committee of the two chambers, facing serious policy and political problems.

To salvage something more than a symbolic victory, Bush likely will have to do what he appears most reluctant to attempt _ explain the nuances of a complicated subject to the public at-large and knock heads of recalcitrant politicians in both parties.

Since the House passed its version of the bill May 23 and the Senate finished its bill June 14, almost all the steam has gone out of the drive for the overhaul of the biggest federal school program. Bush is trying to restart the effort to redeem the "leave no child behind" pledge that he made the centerpiece of his campaign. But the Senate got around to naming conferees to meet with the House only last week, and Rep. John Boehner, the Ohio Republican who will head the House conferees, told me, "This will not be quick or easy."

Senate Democrats have made it clear they will not send the bill to the White House until Bush agrees to increase spending on schools well beyond the level recommended in his budget. And while both bills include Bush's bottom-line demand for annual testing of all students in math and English from the third through the eighth grade, a host of other policy problems remain unresolved.

Sandy Kress, the Democratic lawyer and former Dallas school board official who became Bush's ally in Texas school reform and has served as his education adviser in the White House, made it clear in an interview last week that those problems go well beyond the normal need to adjust the details of House and Senate bills.

Kress confirmed _ and, indeed, expanded on _ the challenges laid out in a brilliant piece of reporting by Nicholas Lemann in the July 2 issue of the New Yorker.

As Lemann noted, while most reporting focused on the issue of vouchers _ which were of marginal importance to Bush and were quickly rejected by both the House and Senate _ the real struggle involved what tests would be used, what standards would be deemed acceptable and what would happen if those goals were not met.

In Texas, where the reform effort predated Bush but accelerated under his leadership, the state picked the tests, set the initial standards relatively low but raised them steadily and rather rapidly, and saw performance improve, especially by minority students.

Bush brought that experience to Washington, but he is not the first education reformer to discover that what worked well in his state is far more difficult to achieve nationally. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and South Carolina Gov. Dick Riley were successes in upgrading their schools, but were frustrated in major initiatives as president and secretary of education _ including their own try for voluntary national testing.

"What makes this tough," Kress said, "is designing something that will work in 50 very different states, and then figuring out how you can leverage change when you're only paying 7 percent of the bill" _ the federal share of total education spending. Neither the House nor the Senate succeeded in solving that riddle to the satisfaction of the White House, governors, education experts, classroom teachers, liberals or conservatives. The amount of repair work to be done in conference is awesome and the cross-pressures are immense.

From the National Education Association, which passed a resolution saying all these tests should be made voluntary, to the state and local officials who argue against national norms, to the Heritage Foundation and other pro-voucher conservatives who complain that Bush already has allowed the standards to go limp, to the idealists who argue that if you just demand more of teachers and students, they will perform _ all these conflicting views and agendas remain to be resolved.

Bush can still shape the outcome if he is willing to try to enlist public opinion seriously in the struggle. He would have to explain that the great goal he enunciated in the campaign _ which the public supports _ of assuring every child achieves his or her potential cannot be reached without clear standards, comparable tests, measurable results for every significant sub-group, and real rewards and penalties for schools that succeed or fail. He will have to say that a degree of autonomy for the classroom teacher and the local school authorities may have to be sacrificed to get these results. And he will have to be willing to see the federal government meet its fair share of the costs.

Unless he does, the bill he signs will likely be one more empty promise of real reform.

David Broder is a Washington Post columnist.

Washington Post Writers Group