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Bush Proposes $500 Million in Rewards for Merit Schools

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WASHINGTON--Vice President George Bush last week proposed creating a new $500-million federal program that would reward schools serving disadvantaged pupils that "significantly improve'' their academic achievement.

Each state would determine its own criteria for the designation "National Merit School,'' and every school that met the criteria would be recognized as such, Mr. Bush said at a luncheon here on June 14 honoring this year's 138 Presidential Scholars and their teachers. (See related story on page 15.)

But successful schools serving disadvantaged students could earn not only the accolade, he said, but also awards of up to $100,000.

"To achieve quality results, we must set and enforce standards, provide incentives, and permit the freedom and flexibility at the local level to experiment with new ideas,'' Mr. Bush said.

'Investing in Our Children'

The "Merit Schools'' concept was one of five proposals the likely Republican Presidential nominee outlined in the 30-minute speech, which contained what his aides said were the major--but not necessarily the only--education-related elements of his campaign.

It marked the first time Mr. Bush has provided much detail on his education platform, although in his campaign he has said he would like to be "the education President.''

In his address, he also used a phrase his aides said would be a key theme of his campaign: "Investing in our children.''

The Vice President said he supported federal funding for model teacher-evaluation projects and magnet schools, and increased federal backing for the Fund for Innovation and Reform of Schools and Teaching, a program created by the Congress in this year's major reauthorization bill to support a variety of school-improvement efforts.

Mr. Bush said he would propose increasing federal funding for the FIRST program to $50 million. That level, he said, would provide $1 million to every state to launch reform experiments in a single model district. Reforms could include, he said, parental choice, merit pay, year-round schools, or other "significant'' changes.

The Congress is expected to approve about $12 million for the FIRST program for fiscal 1989.

College Savings Bonds

In addition, the Vice President repeated a proposal he made last July calling for the creation of new federal savings bonds to help parents save for their children's college tuition. Before his speech last week, it was his only specific education proposal.

The Administration has already sent lawmakers a proposal to make tax-free the interest on U.S. Savings Bonds that families apply to college tuition costs.

Mr. Bush likened his idea for new college savings bonds to the Individual Retirement Account concept. Under the proposal, he said, the tax benefit would decrease for families with annual incomes above $60,000, and families with incomes above $80,000 would receive no tax break.

"These are several examples of the kinds of things he will be proposing,'' Charles W. Greenleaf Jr., Mr. Bush's deputy chief of staff, said last week. "This is by no means all he will say.''

He said Mr. Bush would later announce other components of his education program that could include some additional spending proposals.

'Competitiveness' Theme

What the Vice President has said so far, however, echoes a popular campaign theme--the relationship between education and competitiveness. Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts, the likely Democratic Presidential nominee, also has been discussing that relationship.

"Better schools will mean better jobs for our young people, and that will mean a more competitive America,'' Mr. Bush said in his speech last week. "Our program for the future must be built around a strategy of investing in our children.''

Most of the proposals the Vice President outlined here have been put forth by other politicians and educators. He said, for example, that he supported former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander's proposal for funding, from public or private sources, "at least half a dozen'' efforts to create model teacher-evaluation programs that could be used for rewarding outstanding instructors.

"In the meantime,'' Mr. Bush said, "I propose that we give awards to individual schools that significantly improve their performance.''

Some criteria for "Merit Schools'' recognition might be improved test scores or lowered dropout rates, Mr. Bush said. Schools that primarily serve disadvantaged students and meet the criteria would receive a federal award, based on their enrollment, averaging about $100,000.

If $500 million were earmarked for the program, Mr. Bush said, it could provide awards to a fifth of all schools that have a high proportion of disadvantaged students.

"The real beneficiaries would be the students, whose principals and teachers would be motivated to work together to improve the school's performance,'' he said.

Likes Bennett Magnet Idea

The Vice President also said he supported the concept of expanding parental choice in public education, and was "watching closely'' Minnesota's effort to allow students to enroll in any school in the state. He said Secretary of Education William J. Bennett "was over yesterday and was telling me about some schools in Harlem that are doing this.''

In addition, a fact sheet provided by Mr. Bush's aides said he favored "Mr. Bennett's proposal'' for providing $50 million in federal matching funds to states to create or support magnet schools.

A spokesman for Mr. Bennett said last week, however, that such a plan had been rejected by the Office of Management and Budget during its review of the Education Department's 1989 budget blueprint and thus did not see the light of day. The current $75-million magnet-schools program funnels federal aid directly to school districts for desegregation purposes only.

"Magnet schools are a way of promoting excellence and upgrading the quality of an entire school system,'' Mr. Bush said in his remarks.

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