by Adam Entous
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President George W. Bush's first legislative priority education reform advanced on Wednesday as a key Senate committee hammered out the details of a far-reaching plan to boost school performance nationwide by testing students as well as their teachers.
In stark contrast to the partisan rancor surrounding Bush's $1.6 trillion tax cut, Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Health and Education Committee tentatively backed a bipartisan bill giving local officials more leeway in the classroom while holding them accountable for results.
The bill, which the committee hopes to complete on Thursday, would also require annual student testing, and would dedicate $5 billion over five years to help all children learn to read by the end of the third grade both signature issues for Bush during the presidential campaign.
To avert a partisan fight in the committee, Chairman Jim Jeffords, a Vermont Republican, said he would leave the president's private school voucher initiative out of the package. Republicans still could offer Bush's voucher plan as an amendment to the education bill on the Senate floor, but Democrats said they had the votes to defeat it.
The initiative Bush's most controversial would give $1,500 vouchers to the parents of students in troubled public schools to help them send their children to religious or other private institutions.
In its opening deliberations on Wednesday, the Senate Health and Education Committee approved an amendment by Sen. Tim Hutchinson, an Arkansas Republican, that would test teachers and provide merit raises to the best performers. Republicans said it would reward teacher achievement. Democrats warned that it would pit teacher against teacher for funding.
At the same time the committee rejected a measure by Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, the panel's ranking Democrat, that would have required schools to set aside a portion of their federal funds to boost instructor training.
The committee was expected to wade through dozens of other amendments on Wednesday and on Thursday before approving the bipartisan bill and sending it to the Senate floor. Republican Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi said the Senate could take up the bill as early as next week.
While Democrats voiced support for the underlying bill, they complained that Bush's education budget would free up billions of dollars less than promised for needy schools, and promised to press for more funding for school construction, after-school programs and other initiatives.
“Communities require additional resources to implement reform,” Kennedy told the committee.
“We can authorize all these things. But show me the money,” added Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat.
The timetable for action in the House of Representatives was less certain. Aides said House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, planned to include vouchers in the House package, dampening hopes for a bipartisan compromise.
Bush's voucher plan has run into fierce opposition from Democrats, who said it would siphon money from the cash-strapped public school system. Some moderate Republicans also have objected in the narrowly divided House.
KEY CAMPAIGN ISSUE FOR BUSH
Bush made education reform a cornerstone of his presidential campaign, and last week touted his commitment to schools in his first address to Congress, promising to increase education spending in fiscal year 2002 by 11.5 percent, the largest percentage increase of any department.
In testimony before a House panel, Education Secretary Rod Paige urged lawmakers to pass Bush's plan, warning “our system … is failing to do its job for far too many of our children a failure that threatens the future of our nation and a failure that the American people will no longer tolerate.”
As proposed by Bush, the Senate Health and Education Committee bill would require states each year to test all students in grades 3-8 in mathematics and reading. The Senate bill would provide $400 million to develop the tests, and would authorize funds to cover half of the ongoing testing costs.
The Senate bill also would allow a student enrolled in a failing school to transfer to another public school, and would require schools, school districts and states to demonstrate progress in wiping out achievement gaps. Schools that failed to improve could face sanctions.
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