At an elementary school in Huntsville, Alabama, Beth Melton has 19 third-graders in her classroom—about half of whom came to school last August barely able to read.

"They are far behind," the teacher says, explaining that while her kids have made definite progress during recent months, it is unfair to compare them with children of greater advantage who live in more affluent areas of town.

Melton teaches at one of several Title I schools in north Huntsville. Under the Title I program, her school receives additional funding from the federal government because the majority of its students are on reduced or free lunch programs. Almost all students in the north part of the city are black. "Schools in Huntsville are extremely segregated," Melton says.

It is places like this one that the Bush administration had in mind when it issued its blueprint for education reform in January. Congressional leaders are aiming to produce a bipartisan bill that would promote a greater sense of accountability and assistance for schools, where teachers such as Melton, 38, face the challenges of strengthening the basic skills of students.

Education experts agree that such schools need dramatic improvement. "We're not successfully educating children of color and low-income as we are middle-class white children," says Jim Scheurich, an education professor at the University of Texas-Austin.

Yet many educators remain unsure whether the proposed reforms will produce the right results. Bush's proposal for annual tests, for example, does not persuade Melton, recently named Teacher of the Year at her school. In order to increase the accountability of schools, Bush has proposed that states test students in grades 3-8 each year. Forty-nine states have some kind of educational testing standards, but only 18 test students in grades 3-8 annually.

The government would use the results from annual exams to determine whether to reward or penalize schools for their performance. Successful schools would receive financial bonuses as well as more control over how they spend federal funds. (The Bush plan consolidates dozens of existing programs into a few block grants that states would administer.)

For unsuccessful schools where test scores remain low over time, however, the President initially proposed awarding vouchers to low-income students to pay for tuition at private schools, for tutoring expenses, or for other educational services. Academically failing schools would not receive a bonus and their administrative funds would be withheld. (Congressional Democrats blocked tuition vouchers from Bush's education reform package, but they have agreed to support vouchers for private tutoring or relocation costs to another public school.)

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Will Weak Schools Get Weaker?
Nationwide, educators have formed varying opinions about student testing. Melton, for example, holds a different perspective on annual exams from that of her mother, Carolyn Bradley, who is also a teacher. An educator at a Christian school in Brevard County, Florida, Bradley thinks annual testing sharpens the skills of her students.

She also believes it is a way to keep her profession accountable. "We need some measure to be fair to children and parents to make sure we are doing our job," Bradley says. "I think testing is good to see progress and to keep teachers on their toes."

Melton, on the other hand, worries that such a plan would only further penalize the struggling students in her school who already lack a strong foundation. In Alabama, one of the 18 states that tests students every year, Melton says the exam fails to take into account a student's background or learning disabilities.

"I'm not against testing, but the problem in Alabama is the test; they're comparing apples and oranges," she says, referring to rich and poor students who take the same statewide exams.

Melton fears that a federally mandated test would only worsen her school's ability to help students, especially if her school's scores were so low that the government instituted sanctions against it. Melton adamantly opposed Bush's original voucher plan, which would have awarded low-income students in Title I schools a portion of Title I money for tuition at private or religious institutions. "I have a real problem with them taking that money out to give to a private school," she says.

According to the Department of Education's Web site, Title I services are provided to 6.4 million children in more than 14,000 school districts. A department official said the average per-pupil expenditure in schools that receive Title I money is around $500.

Tax Credits and the Poor
Tuition vouchers also raise questions of possible church-state entanglement since public tax money would be funneled into private schools. The Family Research Council (FRC) endorses a separate Bush proposal to create educational tax credits for parents. Under one scenario, parents could receive an annual tax credit of up to $5,000 for money spent on educational resources, whether tuition or books.

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"Politically, tax credits are the option to go with," says Erika Lestelle, the FRC's education policy analyst.

Some question the value of tax credits for the neediest students. "The poor don't pay as much in the way of taxes," says sociologist Tony Campolo, president of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education. "It's only those who are paying taxes that are going to benefit from this program. I see this as a great benefit to the overtaxed middle class. [But] I don't see it delivering much to the poor in society."

FRC is optimistic about another educational policy that the President supports: Educational savings accounts that would allow parents to set aside money for their child's education from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Withdrawals and interest on the savings accounts would be tax free for up to $5,000 a year, according to Bush's plan. The past two sessions of Congress have approved educational savings account proposals with $2,000 limits. But former President Clinton vetoed both bills.

"It's received bipartisan support in the past," Lestelle said. "I think this is the year."

Representatives also hope to increase other federal spending for elementary and secondary schools. House Democrats and Republicans have tentatively agreed to a 22.5 percent increase in funding for elementary and secondary schools. The President, however, says more than money is needed to prompt changes in schools.

While Melton agrees that more funding is important, the Alabama teacher says that money is not a cure-all. She supports better training and mentoring for teachers, and she believes that the best changes occur at local levels.

"When you get so far removed as Washington, D.C., there's no way they can make a great education plan for every state," she says. "That's impossible."

Related Elsewhere

Other articles about Bush's education plan include:
GOP pushes budget through house — Associated Press (May 9, 2001)

Senate allocates $6 billion to train teachers in poor areasLos Angeles Times (May 9, 2001)

Budget vote may hang on educationThe Boston Globe (May 9, 2001)

Senate expands Bush plan to protect teachers — Reuters (May 9, 2001)

House education bill got it wrong for some critics on the rightThe Washington Post (May 6, 2001)

Bush education plan facing major changes on hillThe Washington Post (May 6, 2001)

Bush's education reform advancesChicago Tribune (May 4, 2001)

Education bill passes key test — Associated Press (May 4, 2001)

On way to passage, Bush's education plan gets a makeover -The New York Times (May 4, 2001)

Revised education bill is unveiledLos Angeles Times (May 4, 2001)

House panel votes to kill private school vouchersThe Washington Post (May 3, 2001)

See more updates in Yahoo's full coverage areas on the 2002 budget, Education Curriculum and Policy, and School Choice and Tuition Vouchers.

More Christianity Today articles on school reforms are available in our education area.

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