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Conservatives Fear Strong Federal Role in President’s Education Plan

By David L. Greene

President Bush arrived in Washington with grand plans to reform the public schools. But now, Bush is under pressure from conservatives in his own party to retreat from a central element of his education agenda.

Several Republicans complain that Bush’s plan would amount to federal meddling, by instructing states on how to test. As they have helped write Bush’s ideas into legislation, these conservatives have so far succeeded in watering down some of the tough language in his plan.

Bush is absorbing the most heat from the Education Reform Caucus, a group of loosely aligned lawmakers that was formed last year and is chaired by two Republicans in the House, Reps. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan and Robert W. Schaffer of Colorado.

The caucus says it is open to testing. But its members argue that localities -- not the federal government -- should be calling the shots.

“We’re not against measuring progress, but mandating the stuff from Washington does create some concern,” Hoekstra said. “I’m uneasy about putting the kind of framework in place that says, ‘States have to do this.’ ”

Such resistance from Republicans in a closely divided Congress is complicating the White House’s effort to push what it assumed would be a rosy legislative victory.

Bush’s advisers profess not to be worried. “The conservative lawmakers are saying, ‘We don’t want a national test,’ ” Paige said . “We’re saying, ‘We’re with you.’ ”

The centerpiece of Bush’s plan was a demand for accountability from states and school systems. States would have to administer their own annual reading and math tests in grades four through eight. They would have to prove “results in student achievement would be comparable from year to year.”

School systems that showed progress could receive rewards, such a increased federal funding. Underperforming states and systems could see their funding cut.