The long-awaited package of new education plans that President Bush proposed this week deserves only passing marks.
But then the White House itself didn't expect much more. The rest of the country shouldn't, either, considering the severe restraints on the federal budget imposed by the imperative need to stop running big deficits.Besides, the education establishment needs to stop acting as if federal funding is what matters most. That never was the case and never will be as long as education remains primarily a local responsibility.
Anyway, the proposed new program includes cash awards for top schools and teachers; annual science scholarships for 570 of the country's brightest high school seniors; additional aid for magnet schools, historically black colleges and the schools most beset with drug problems; and grants to encourage the use of uncertified teachers who have valuable practical experience.
The rest of the Bush plan consists of efforts that do not need congressional approval - identifying and publicizing successful schools, and educating homeless adults and children.
The overall package borrows heavily from innovations launched at the state level. That's as it should be. One of the big advantages of the federal system of government is that it allows the states to be used as laboratories for various social and economic experiments, with the country as a whole rejecting the failures and adopting the successes.
Missing from the package is one of Bush's campaign promises - tuition tax credits for parents who send their children to private schools.
It's hard to throw rocks at efforts to encourage educational excellence. Likewise, it's hard for much learning to take place in schools with serious drug problems. Moreover, the price tag comes to only $441 million on top of the $21.9 billion in education spending already being sought for the next fiscal year.
But even that modest price tag will be hard to justify if deep cuts must be made in the regular education budget, which does not keep up with inflation, and if those cuts make further inroads in basic programs for students who are disadvantaged, handicapped or limited in their English proficiency.
By itself, the new package won't come close to achieving George Bush's ambition of being remembered as the "education president." But it could constitute a first step in that direction. Meanwhile, current economic realities dictate a slow start.