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Senate Passes Education Bill Calls for Annual Testing, Closure for Achievement Gaps

By Helen Dewar
THE WASHINGTON POST -- The Senate approved the first major overhaul of the nation’s education policy in 35 years Thursday as it voted overwhelmingly in favor of President Bush’s plan to use federal aid to force improvements in academic achievement.

The bill, approved 91-8 after more than a month of debate, calls for annual testing of students in reading and mathematics, and requires schools to demonstrate progress in eliminating achievement gaps. Failing schools would receive aid to improve but would face the loss of funds and other penalties if they fail to make adequate progress. Students in those schools would receive special assistance, including tutoring.

Local school officials would be given more flexibility in how they spend federal funds -- which now accounts for 7 percent of public education funds. A small number of states and school districts could experiment with even more freedom from federal controls in exchange for meeting higher standards.

Bush was rebuffed by both the Senate and House in his bid to win approval of vouchers to help low-income children escape failing public schools by enrolling in private schools.

The bill now goes to a House-Senate conference. Eventual passage is virtually assured because a similar bill was approved last month by the House. A major struggle remains over an estimated $15 billion difference between what Bush and Democrats want to spend to implement the bill’s anticipated reforms.

Six Republicans and two Democrats voted against the bill.

The Senate bill reflected months of negotiations, from which Bush got most of what he wanted. Democrats also managed to push the bill more toward their liking, adding billions of dollars worth of new and expanded programs for disabled and disadvantaged children, libraries, technological centers and mentors for teachers.

“We are close to a monumental achievement with bipartisan support,” Bush, who is in Europe, said in a statement. “As a result of our effort, we have wide agreement on the principle of education reform.”

“What we passed today is not a Democratic bill or a Republican bill -- but an education bill,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, (D-Mass).