WASHINGTON -- Eight months into his term, President Bush faces the biggest test yet of his vow to be the 'education president' when he meets the nation's governors this week at a summit on America's troubled schools.
In the process, Bush will try to set in motion creation of education performance goals, such as increased literacy and graduation rates. And he will discuss a request from the governors for more flexibility in the use of federal funds to reach academic targets.
Above all, his aides say, the president will seek to halt what former Education Secretary William Bennett, now the federal anti-drug chief, describes as a chilling fact of academic life.
'The longer you are in school in America, the dumber you become, relative to (students in) other countries,' says Bennett, referring to comparative standardized test scores. 'You don't start out dumb.'
The summit will be held Wednesday and Thursday at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. It will mark just the third time that a president has summoned the governors to discuss a vital national concern. Theodore Roosevelt did it on conservation; Franklin Roosevelt on the Great Depression.
'We've invited the nation's governors to come together to focus on the eduational system, a system which is not, in spite of the money being spent per capita, making the grade,' Bush said.
Since a landmark 1983 federal report on education, 'A Nation At Risk,' real spending on education -- at the state, local and federal level -- has risen nearly 30 percent to more than $350 billion a year.
This wave of money has provided increased pay for teachers and a return to the basics for students. Yet standardized tests show little if any increase in achievement, triggering widespread concern and frustration.
'We must find innovative, accountable ways to improve performance,' said Bush, who hopes to uncover methods that don't require a big increase in spending of tight federal money.
The National Governors' Association is pushing a low-cost idea. It wants the administration to give states greater discretion in the use of federal funds so that more money can be funneled into education.
'As we move toward establishment of new education goals, governors are saying they want more flexibility so they can better obtain them,' explained Jim Martin, an NGA policy analyst.
Said Roger Porter, Bush's domestic policy adviser, 'If we are going to agree to greater flexibility ... we want to tie it to a much higher level of accountability.'
Bush promised during the 1988 campaign to be the nation's 'education president,' and recently said he wants the leaders at the summit to commit themselves to the establishment of national education performance goals.
Last week, Democratic leaders preemptively offered their own list of performance goals, such as raising standardized test scores, increasing the number of youngsters in preschool programs and upgrading the status and qualifications of teachers.
They also noted Congress called for an education summit five years ago but that the Reagan administration refused the invitation.
'The Democratic Party has long championed educational opportunity for all Americans,' said Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell of Maine.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the administration welcomed their recommendations. As for suggestions the Democrats were trying to hog the stage, Fitzwater said, 'The stage is big enough for all of us.'
Since Bush announced the summit on July 31, there has been plenty of anxiety in the education community and in statehouses about what, if anything, it would produce.
The sense of unease mounted as the White House waited until last week before announcing an agenda for the two-day affair that will begin with an opening statement by the president and end with a news conference.
In between, the White House said, there will be six closed-door workshops involving the governors, the president and members of Bush's Cabinet.
Topics will include:
-Teaching, including recognizing and 'rewarding excellence' and providing more flexibility in teacher certification.
-'The learning environment,' including maintaining crime-free schools, identifying at-risks students and reducing drop-out rates.
-Defining the 'appropriate role' for the federal, state and local governments in education.
-Consider ways to give students and parents a greater choice in selecting a school. Bush has long maintained this would improve education by creating competition for pupils.
-'Strengthening access and excellence' in secondary education.
The White House has said Bush would not present any program at the summit, but instead seek to begin a dialogue, focus attention on school issues and develop a process for creation of goals.
'This summit is the first step in a long road,' said Porter.
This first step has caused grumbling by some educators who complain that no one from their ranks has been invited. The president has, however, held pre-summit meetings with dozens of top educators and activists.
One of them, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, now president of the University of Tennessee, conferred with Bush last week. Afterwards, Alexander said the nation's school system needs to be overhauled and said it may take until the end of the century to see significant results.
'A brand new school system means we sit down community by community by community and decide what our goals are and what it takes to get it done,' he said.
James Comer, professor of child psychiatry at Yale University, also met with Bush last week and said afterwards that before any performance goals are established, the existing education system be reviewed.
'You may set up a condition where you put more pressure on educators to reach certain goals without giving them the necessary support to do it,' Comer said. 'It's going to be a complex process.'
Educators have hailed Bush for calling the summit, but they are anxiously waiting to see what comes of it.
'There will be a tremendous letdown if the summit takes place and turns out to be a mere media event,' warns Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Frank Rhodes, president of Cornell University, was upbeat following his talk with Bush. 'I'd certainly give the president an A for the planning the summit, and for the agenda. And I think the nation will give him an A when the summit has taken place.'
Comer said he believes Bush is genuinely interested in improving education, that but it's far to early to give him any grade. 'Let's first see what happens,' he said.