PRESIDENT BUSH has pledged to send his first education bill to Capitol Hill within hours of his inauguration, a symbol of the priority he assigns to the issue that garnered so much campaign attention and looms so large in his Texas record of accomplishment.

This will kick off the busiest two years of education policy-making in Washington since Lyndon Johnson's day. Even if the White House were inert, the 107th Congress would have its hands full with reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act -- on which the previous Congress made good headway but eventually gave up -- and the tangle of federal education research, statistics, and assessment programs. In 2002, the big "special education" program for disabled children also comes due for renewal.

Despite the whopping spending increases that Clinton and Congress lavished on education programs of every description, none of them is working well. It's past time to shift from an archaic focus on how and where the money is spent to an emphasis on whether children are actually learning. It's past time to move from a "compliance" model (in which states and communities merely show that they're following Washington's rules) to a "tight-loose" strategy that frees states and schools to do what they think best so long as they produce student-achievement gains. It's past time to switch from funding school systems to aiding needy kids.

Such changes would bring federal education policy into the modern era, would harmonize it with promising state-level reforms, and would alter Washington's role from troublemaker to partner. But of course that's easier said than done. The teacher unions, school boards, old-line civil rights organizations, and other potent interest groups cling doggedly to the Great Society-era status quo. So do most of the editorial writers. Though governors claim to want more control over federal education dollars, up to now they've shunned the heavy political lifting. And congressional Democrats are understandably wary of ceding any of the education territory to Republicans.

Striding into this briar patch is the most serious "education president" since LBJ. During the campaign, Bush painted a sweeping reform vision (before succumbing to Clinton-Gore-style programmitis). In Rod Paige, he's picked an able reformer for education secretary. He's installed a trusted Austin education staffer as chief domestic strategist at the White House. And he rounded up all the available GOP education talent to help with the transition.

It's a moment of great potential and high drama. As the play unfolds, watch for three signals:

First, how does the Bush team handle "accountability"? Everyone agrees that states and schools must show improved academic results, but how to cajole or coerce this from the banks of the Potomac? The Texans seem to think they can extend Lone Star-style reform to the entire country. But that strategy is top-down and centrally controlled, dependent on three forms of leverage that Washington currently lacks: explicit academic standards; annual tests of student performance; and consequences for kids and schools based on how they perform on those tests.

It's a formula that's worked well in Texas and some other states. But can it be imposed from Washington? Don't count on it.

After a miserable experience with national standards during the first Bush administration, Congress isn't going there again. Which means states will continue to set their own standards. But many of those are vague and touchy-feely. Will Bush and Paige second-guess the states? The Clintonites lacked the will -- and congressional backing -- to do so.

As for tests, nearly every state has lots of them, but they can't be compared with each other and they don't always tell the truth. Clinton proposed a "voluntary national test" but that idea was shot down from the left and right. (The principal Senate marksman was attorney general-designate John Ashcroft.) And if the White House tries to convert the existing National Assessment into a high-stakes test, it will corrupt our surest indicator of how U.S. students are doing.

Even if the standards and testing parts could be worked out, what would Uncle Sam use for rewards and sanctions? Congress has never wanted to grant or withhold education dollars on the basis of academic performance, a practice that is said to enrich schools that are already succeeding while weakening those in greatest need.

Which brings up the second litmus issue: vouchers. During the campaign, Bush proposed to use "exit vouchers" to punish errant schools by allowing their students to depart for greener education pastures. Following a strategy that brother Jeb pioneered in Florida, he would let poor kids take their federal Title I money (about $ 800 apiece) to the school of their choice if -- and only if -- their original public school failed to make academic gains for three consecutive years.

Limited as it is, this proposal terrifies the public-education blob. Congressional Democrats have warned Bush that persevering with any sort of voucher will cause a legislative train wreck. (And weak-kneed transitioners have already hinted that they won't fall on the voucher sword.)

Talk about a mouse upsetting an elephant! Despite the furor, the Bush voucher proposal is barely that. Far from conferring the right to choose their schools upon millions of federally aided youngsters, it's really a small part of the public-school accountability scheme, to be triggered only in rare circumstances. Nor is $ 800 enough to pay tuition anywhere.

Most important, "exit vouchers" don't solve the central problem of the LBJ-era education programs. (Nor would a battery of new tests.) The core issue is that today the money belongs to school systems rather than to students. Thus Washington actually impedes school choice. Many states and communities -- including Rod Paige's Houston -- have made impressive strides in opening education options for children. Yet federal programs remain stuck in the 1960s, protected fiercely by the school establishment. A family may opt for a charter school, for a public school in a nearby district, even (in Milwaukee or Cleveland) for a private school, and it can count on state -- and sometimes local -- dollars moving with the child. Washington's money, however, stays in the public school system where the family lives.

Will the Bush team press for funding children instead of institutions? Listen for the word "portability," the third key test. Higher education policy got there in 1972 when a Democratic Congress and the Nixon White House, after much debate, agreed that Washington's main vehicle for aiding post-secondary schooling would be grants and loans attached to individual students rather than direct campus subsidies.

Portability would do far more good than exit vouchers by way of reforming Washington's troubled K-12 programs. And it has a further advantage. Bush-style exit vouchers would be imposed everywhere, including places that want no part of school choice. Hence a huge political ruckus will surround this little mouse of a program.

Portability, though affecting far more children, should be easier to enact so long as federal law leaves the states in the driver's seat. The key is for Washington to wrap itself around the principle of neutrality with respect to school choice. The White House and Congress should make the federal dollars portable but invite each state to set its own limits. Federal moneys would move precisely as far as each state allows its own funds to travel.

This is not a federal voucher program. It defers to states to work through the thorny choice issue in their own ways. It merely gets Uncle Sam out of the way.

Accountability. Exit vouchers. Portability. Watch how these are handled. Worry if you see the Bushies putting all their policy eggs in the standards-and-testing basket. Worry, too, if exit-vouchers are allowed to become either panacea or train-wrecker. They aren't worth it. But cheer when you hear the word portability. It's the single reform that would do the most good.

Chester E. Finn Jr., a former assistant secretary of education, is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

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