Annual tests from age nine

Jon Marcus

UNITED STATES: US set for biggest changes in education policy since 1965. Jon Marcus reports

AFTER months of delay, the US House of Representatives has overwhelmingly approved the biggest reform of American educational policy since 1965. The Senate was also expected to endorse the measure, and President George W Bush has indicated he will sign it, probably by Christmas.

The decision means all US students in grades 3 to 8 (ages 9 to 15) will be tested in reading and mathematics annually, beginning next year. Those in public schools that consistently score poorly will be able to choose to go to other public schools, or be given private tuition.

Local school districts will have more flexibility in how they spend federal aid, which will be increased by $4 billion (pound;2.8bn) to a total of nearly $23 billion (pound;16bn).

Backers said they hoped to close the gap in performance between students in schools that serve predominantly poor neighbourhoods, and those who are better-off. The legislation also provides for more mid-career teacher training, expanded after-school programmes, and smaller class sizes.

Once tests indicate that a school has failed to improve achievement over two consecutive years, the students enrolled there will be eligible for money for private tutoring.

Major cities will see significant increases in federal aid for education. New York will get 29 per cent more than it received last year; Los Angeles, a 38 per cent increase.

The Bill was a compromise hammered out by negotiators from the House and Senate. It passed the House by a vote of 381-41, with huge majorities from both political parties, even though Democrats had sought to increase government spending on education even further. They said it would be impossible to accomplish real reform without a significantly greater financial commitment.

"I feel very strongly that what we have done, without the funding, is going to be counter-productive and very discouraging," said Senator James Jeffords.

The measure is the first major change in federal education policy since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

Education was a major issue in last year's presidential campaign between Mr Bush and Al Gore. But as agreement neared on the provisions of these changes, the September terrorist attacks on the US diverted lawmakers' attention.

The end result of the debate was that more money will be spent on education than Mr Bush proposed. Congress also failed to back his proposal to give federal vouchers to public school students to pay private school tuition.

Still, the president said that the agreement "will ensure that no child in America is left behind through historic education reforms based on real accountability, unprecedented flexibility for states and school districts, greater local control, more options for parents and more funding for what works".

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Jon Marcus

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