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Senate puts Bush education bill to the test

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Senate returned from an extended spring recess Tuesday to take up President Bush's prized education legislation, much to the president's delight.

Bush first presented his plan to overhaul the public education system with local accountability testing at the end of 1999 as he geared up his 2000 sprint for the presidency.

What was once the central pillar of the Bush campaign platform is now written into legislative language. The administration hopes for rousing success in the upper chamber, so it can count education reform as one of its most lasting early achievements.


As the Senate's 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats drifted back to the nation's capital after a fortnight of rest, relaxation and elbow rubbing with their constituents, Bush returned from Quebec and the volatile Summit of the Americas.

He appeared no worse for the wear Monday when he sought to prompt the Senate into speedy action on the education bill as he introduced the Teacher of the Year, Vermont's Michele Forman, to the White House press corps.

Bush's package has for the most part been well received in the Senate. Democrats have raised concerns that the funding increases he suggests in his fiscal year 2002 budget for education programs will not help meet the requirements laid out in his education package.

Democrat Paul Wellstone of Minnesota was among the first to take the floor Tuesday morning in the slowly developing debate and blasted Bush's budget and education packages as contradictory.

"If we are now going to have this mandate on all the states to do all this testing, there has to be money," Wellstone said. "We are now going to have these massive requirements, a massive commitment of resources to make sure that children achieve on these tests.

"Right now what we have from the president is a tin cup budget for education," Wellstone said.

"I support historic new levels of education funding, yet all of us know better schools require more than just funding," Bush said Monday afternoon, anticipating that he would have to bear such criticism through the week's debate. "My education reform has a good balance of new dollars."

Bush's multibillion dollar plan contains a number of measures that enjoy bipartisan support, including initiatives that would give states and localities more control over federal education dollars, require students to take regular tests on reading and math, and increase federal funding for early reading programs.

Bush has said repeatedly that parents and others cannot know what children are leaning unless they are tested annually. He wants localities to devise assessment tests that not only gauge performance but also give administrators a fair view of how well their schools -- specifically schools that are rated as "failing" -- are performing.

The goal, Bush has said, is to encourage poorly performing schools to boost the performance of their students by letting localities set the benchmarks. If those benchmarks are not met, Bush would take away federal money apportioned to an under-performing school and redistribute its equivalent to parents as vouchers.

That money could be used by the parents to transfer their children to better performing public schools, to magnet schools, or to pay a portion of a private school's tuition.

The voucher portion of the Bush plan does not sit well with congressional Democrats, who believe it will siphon too much money away from the public schools that most desperately need to improve.

Democrats will also argue that the tests themselves could be fraught with problems.

"We have to be very clear in the language that there is no abuse of testing," Wellstone said. "We want to be very careful that this testing that is done is consistent with professional standards."

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