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Bush Backing School Reform Package

April 14, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ After barely a month on the job, Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander has gotten President Bush’s backing for a far-reaching package of reforms that include national student tests and experiments with radically new ways of running schools.

Bush, who pledged during his 1988 campaign to be the ″education president,″ will unveil the school reform package at the White House on Thursday after a luncheon with governors, an administration official said Sunday.

The fast-track initiative will embrace some of the same education themes that Bush and former President Reagan have sounded before: expanding parental choice in education and improving literacy and job training programs for dropouts, displaced workers and other adults.

But it will also put Bush’s stamp - and Alexander’s - on some radically new ideas, including pressing ahead to develop a type of national student testing program, as a presidential advisory panel recently recommended.

Alexander is a former governor of Tennessee who was president of the University of Tennessee when Bush nominated him Dec. 17 to succeed Lauro F. Cavazos.

He won Bush’s backing for his reform ideas within days of his March 18 swearing-in, said chief Education Department spokeswoman Etta Fielek.

Alexander has cleaned house at the Education Department and lured David Kearns, a former chairman of Xerox Corp., as his deputy secretary.

The reform package is still evolving, Ms. Fielek said.

″It is very complicated. It will not bring results overnight,″ she said. ″But it will bring issues to the table.″

The package is intended as a blueprint to help implement the ambitious but broad education goals that Bush and the nation’s governors set after an education summit in Charlottesville, Va., in September 1989.

Those goals include ridding schools of drugs and violence, drastically reducing the dropout rate and making American pupils the best in the world in math and science by 2000.

The New York Times, in a report Sunday, said Bush would propose several hundred million dollars in new spending, primarily on grants to spur innovations that would include ″a new generation of American schools″ to try longer school days or years and other new education approaches. Some schools may be operated by private industry, according to an unnamed official cited by the newspaper.

″There are four broad themes: better schools for the kids in school now; new schools for the students of the future; back to school for the adults; and then ’the other 91 percent,‴ said Ms. Fielek.

″The other 91 percent″ is a phrase coined by Chester A. Finn Jr., a Vanderbilt University professor and former Education Department research chief. It refers to the fact that youths spend only 9 percent of their lives in the classroom by the time they graduate from high school.

Bush will seek to improve classroom performance by bolstering that other 91 percent of their lives, Ms. Fielek said. Under that umbrella will fall such items as improving child nutrition and helping parents improve their skills in tutoring their own children.

National testing was once anathema to most education groups, rejected out of hand by teachers, administrators and superintendents alike.

The federal government plays a major role in funding remedial education for the poor and special education for the handicapped, but it doesn’t set the public school curriculum. That falls to state and local control.

But in the mid-1980s, amid widespread dissatisfaction with students’ performance on college entrance tests and in international scholastic exams, state superintendents agreed to expand the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federally sponsored program that tests a cross-section of U.S. pupils in various subjects. Some states now piggyback their own tests on NAEP exams.

In February, the president’s education policy advisory committee strongly recommended that Bush consider a national testing program.

Ms. Fielek said Alexander was not in favor of a sole test that all school children would have to pass.

″He feels we’re too diverse a nation to have any single test,″ she said.

″No one in the administration is talking about having a federal test,″ said an administration official working on the 84-page draft ″excellence in education″ document.

Any tests would be voluntary, not compulsory, said Finn, an unpaid adviser to Alexander.

The national education goals that Bush and the governors embraced says that every child should leave grades four, eight and 12 having ″demonstrated competency″ in five core subjects: English, math, science, history and geography. A National Education Goals panel headed by Colorado Gov. Roy Romer is still trying to decide how to measure such competency.

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