Bush signs far-reaching education bill; ‘America’s schools will be on a new path of reform’; More funding for low-income students to benefit area districts

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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President Bush signed his education bill into law Tuesday, acting on his top domestic priority and pushing many of the reforms that Texas has seen to a national scale.

“As of this hour, America’s schools will be on a new path of reform and a new path of results,” he told an audience outside an Ohio high school.

The bill is an immensely complex result of months of negotiations between the administration and congressional leaders. “In that box is the bill,” Mr. Bush said before the signing. “I don’t intend to read it all. It’s not exactly light reading.”

Its major themes of accountability and testing are holdovers from Mr. Bush’s days as Texas governor and the school reform movement that preceded him. Many of the biggest changes – such as mandatory state testing and tying financing to student performance – will be familiar to Texans.

“The state of Texas is in the very happy position of just having to make a few refinements to our current system,” said Frank Fanning, administrator of federal programs for Fort Worth schools. “The main thrust of the legislation, we’re already doing all of that.”

Perhaps the bill’s biggest effect on the Dallas-Fort Worth area will be an increase in federal funding that is directed to school systems with many poor students and is often used to improve reading and math skills for young children who are behind their peers.

The bill is a reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which marked the first major incursion of federal money into local education policy.

Over time, the act has become a catchall for a variety of educational initiatives. For example, the bill’s many nooks and crannies include increased financing for early reading education, teacher training, school safety, after-school programs, and college tuition grants.

But for most of the country, the biggest change will be the increase in standardized testing, which the bill requires for all students in grades three through eight. Performance on those state-designed tests will be reported in school “report cards” and used to judge schools.

If a school’s students consistently score poorly and fail to make adequate annual improvements, they will be subject to penalties of increasing severity. Two straight bad years, for instance, would allow the school’s students to transfer to another public school. Three bad years would release a portion of the school’s federal financing to parents for private tutoring. Further problems could mean replacing school staff members or a complete restructuring.

While they differ in some details, most of these provisions are similar to ones in place in Texas. For other states, however, the changes will be sharp.

“I have contacts with a lot of people in other states, and this is a shock to them,” Mr. Fanning said. “Some states don’t even have state tests of any kind. They’re going to have to bite the bullet and do what Texas has done.”

Texas will benefit from a boost in Title I financing under the law. Named for a section within the 1965 act, Title I dedicates federal money to school districts based on how many poor students they teach. The methods for determining whether a student is poor are similar to those used to determine whether a student can receive school lunches for free or at a reduced price.

For districts with poorer populations, the money can be a lifesaver, allowing for individual tutoring or small-group instruction at an early age. Most Texas school districts receive between $500 and $700 per poor student annually.

The bill increases Title I financing to Texas by 25 percent, from $804 million this year to just over $1 billion next year. Although it hasn’t been determined how much individual districts will benefit, large districts such as Dallas and Fort Worth will receive several million dollars more, and other area districts should get hundreds of thousands.

“It lets us hire additional teachers who can focus in on individual kids,” said Barbara Baird, coordinator of district title support in Richardson ISD, which has 14 schools with enough poor students to receive Title I support.

“Our student achievement started improving dramatically when we started receiving Title I funds,” said Cheryl Jennings, principal of Good Elementary in Irving, which was recently named a federal Blue Ribbon school and has a student population that is 80 percent poor.

“Any of our first-grade students who has trouble reading can get 30 minutes a day one-on-one with a reading specialist, and that’s paid for with Title I money. I couldn’t do without it.”

Area school officials caution that there will be many months of regulatory formulas and other bureaucratic action before any more money arrives at schools. But they’re cautiously optimistic that the benefits will be substantial.

“We’re in a people business, and the more we can get people working one-on-one, the better,” said Martha Stone, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Irving schools. “I won’t say it would be impossible to educate a lot of these kids without Title I money, but it might be virtually impossible.”