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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, December 17, 2001

Congress takes lead in education reform

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed the most sweeping change in federal education policy since 1965 in setting standards to identify failing schools, and mandating measures to improve them.

The Senate is expected to pass the bill early this week. The president, who will proudly claim the new law as validation of one of his chief campaign pledges, plans to sign it into law before Christmas.

But the bill emerged from months of bipartisan thoughtfulness over how much federal resources to devote to failing schools, resulting in a remarkable compromise. Republicans sacrificed a plan to divert public funds to private schools — vouchers — while Democrats agreed not to press for the government to fulfill its commitment to pay 40 percent of the nation's special education needs, a blow to Hawai'i.

The new legislation is likely to have a marked but mixed effect on public education in Hawai'i. For starters, there seems little doubt that some schools here will be identified as failing.

Under the new law, children in a school that does not improve for two years in a row would be able to transfer to a better public school or a charter school with free transportation provided. If the school failed to improve for a third year, students would be entitled to private tutoring at public expense — a striking parallel to some of the expensive measures ordered up for Felix-class students in Hawai'i as the result of years of neglect in special education.

After five years without improvement, the school would be forced to reorganize or convert to a charter school, or lose its federal money.

These sanctions fall short of, but suggest a drift toward, the prize long sought by Republicans: vouchers that would allow students from failing schools to attend private schools.

The good news, says Hawai'i schools superintendent Pat Hamamoto, is that the standards and testing mandated by the new law are in line with those already being introduced here. It's crucial in this regard that the federal standards be general enough to allow states to fine-tune them for local needs, and that schools not be required to teach to these tests.

What tends to cause grumpiness in Hawai'i as well as other locations is the federal government's intrusion into what once was the exclusive domain of states and localities. At times local officials complain about so-called "unfunded mandates," such as the federal government's failure to fund costly special education measures it requires; at others, as in the new bill, they complain that federal funds long relied upon will be withdrawn if federal requirements aren't met.

But this interference wouldn't have occurred if states and localities had done a better job.

"We can't guarantee success" of the nation's laggard schools, said Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat. "But we can provide the opportunity."

He's right. The prevailing level of failure, both here and nationally, is no longer acceptable.