Wednesday, February 21, 2001

Bush stresses school accountability

Ohio visit downplays vouchers concept

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COLUMBUS — President Bush went heavily on the “accountability” part of his education plan and lightly on the less popular “choice” element in a campaign-style swing through an urban grade school here Tuesday.

        “An education system that is not accountable is one where schoolchildren are just shoveled through,” the president said in a half-hour education round table in the crowded reading room of Sullivant Elementary School. The school is in a low-income neighborhood just southwest of downtown Columbus.

[photo] President Bush and first lady Laura Bush listen to supporters at Sullivant Elementary School on Tuesday.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        Sullivant was chosen for Mr. Bush's first stop on a two-day trip aimed at touting his education and tax-cuts plans because it is an inner-city school where student test scores have been rising in a public school system that conducts rigorous testing aimed at identifying which schools are failing and which are succeeding.

        The school's story dovetailed neatly with the Bush education plan, which would insist on standardized testing in public schools and would yank federal dollars from schools that fail to improve three years in a row.

        “How do you know if you are succeeding if you don't measure?” Mr. Bush asked, surrounded by a panel that included Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, Columbus school Superintendent Rosa Smith, educators from Sullivant and a Columbus schools parent.

        “I am unalterably opposed to a national test, because that would undermine local curriculum,” Mr. Bush said. “Some say testing is punishment. I say it is a diagnostic tool, to identify problems before it is too late.”

        The president, in his first visit to Ohio since winning the state's 21 electoral votes in November, had little to say about the other, more controversial part of his plan — handing federal dollars taken away from failing public schools to parents so they can enroll their children in other schools.

        Critics say it would amount to a “voucher” program that would take tax dollars away from public education and shift it to private schools, many of which are religious.

        The Bush administration has downplayed the “school choice” portion of the president's education plan, fearing it will rally opponents and jeopardize his chances of getting an education package through a Congress nearly evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.

        In Cleveland, an experimental voucher program has been ruled unconstitutional by federal courts and could end up being the national test case of vouchers before the U.S. Supreme Court.

        Supporters of school vouchers think the new president is firmly on their side, even though most of his public comments have been about school accountability.

        Cincinnati City Councilman Phil Heimlich, who has helped establish charter schools in Cincinnati, was among the small group invited by the White House to be in the audience for the Bush discussion, along with David Zanotti, chairman of the Ohio Roundtable, an organization pushing for establishment of a school voucher system statewide.

        “My interest in being here is to encourage the president to stick with his commitment to school choice,” Mr. Heimlich said. “I believe he is going to do that.”

        Tuesday, Mr. Bush said he thinks “the best program is that which allows parents to make oth er choices.”

        Before the round table, Mr. Taft toured the school with the president — who several times referred to the Ohio governor as “guv” — and said his own school accountability plans are “100 percent in line” with the Bush administration plan.

        Brenda Seffrin, a 31-year-old Columbus woman, told Mr. Bush that she was told her 10-year-old son Jonathan was learning-disabled when he was in the first grade, but she said she insisted he not be put in special-education classes and get regular tutoring in reading.

        “Now he is doing fine,” Mrs. Seffrin said.

        Mrs. Seffrin told the president she thinks “accountability” should apply not only to students, teachers and schools systems, but to parents.

        “We need to hold parents accountable, too,” she said.

        Mr. Bush, who was accompanied by first lady Laura Bush on the trip, made a quick tour of the school, which has about 350 students.

        Shortly after noon, Air Force One took off for the second leg of the president's two-day trip. Tuesday afternoon, he visited a grade school in St. Louis and was expected to go to Knoxville, Tenn., today for an event touting his tax-cut plan.

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