School Reform Yields to Politics

Federal education legislation has now passed its first major hurdles, with both the House and Senate having passed education bills that would commit $24 billion and $33 billion, respectively. The bills are still widely touted as a comprehensive reform effort: In fact, they are simply a bipartisan commitment to education business as usual--at a sharply higher level of spending.

Few lawmakers even pretend, and virtually none believe, that the legislation and the accompanying federal funds will improve school performance and close the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their peers. Education experts across the political spectrum share that assessment. Worse yet, the legislation will effectively foreclose, perhaps for a decade, federal reform efforts that might actually promote improved school performance and student achievement. The only consolation lies in the hope that a thoroughly botched federal effort will induce education reformers to direct their efforts toward the states.

Education reformers began the year under auspicious circumstances. Polls indicated a broad and intense public dissatisfaction with a system that, despite a substantial increase in funding (in real dollars) since 1970, has failed to improve lamentable student achievement. At the same time, leaders of both parties have for some time agreed that education constitutes, in a sentiment expressed most recently by George W. Bush, "a local responsibility and a national priority." The story of how reform nonetheless turned into a monument to the failed status quo is a cautionary tale about Washington politics--including, and especially, bipartisan politics.

President Bush's original agenda for education reform, contained in a slim 28 pages, rested on private school choice, in the form of a $1,500 voucher for parents of children trapped in failing schools; increased flexibility for states and local school districts, through the consolidation of a panoply of highly specific federal programs into a few block grants; and "accountability" through national and state tests. None of these proposals has survived the legislative process. The massive Senate and House bills, weighing in at 796 and 1,032 pages, respectively, prescribe in minute detail how and on what states and school districts are to spend the torrent of federal funds. Proposed amendments for parental choice pilot programs were voted down, as were amendments to enable state governors to obtain waivers from rigid, categorical federal grant requirements. Watered-down testing requirements for students in grades 3 to 8 remain. Those provisions, however, will do little to improve school accountability and performance: failing schools would receive more rather than less federal money. As the teenage school kids who are supposed to benefit from the legislation might put it, reform has gone FUBAR--[messed] up beyond all recognition.

Conservative experts such as former Education Secretary William Bennett and Chester Finn, an architect of the Bush proposal, have attributed the dismaying outcome to tactical mistakes. Before Congress had even begun to debate education reform, the White House signaled that it would sign absolutely any education bill and effectively surrendered the parental choice provisions to the strenuous opposition of the National Education Assn. and its chief congressional patron, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). Moreover, the White House discouraged Republican lawmakers from introducing a full-blown conservative alternative to its own centrist proposal. Had such a bill been in play, the administration's agenda might have emerged as a reasonable middle ground. Without it, the already conciliatory Bush plan marked the official conservative position, and the legislative compromise shifted in the only possible direction--to the left.

But even better political tactics would have produced a status quo bill. That result will flow from virtually any federal reform that treats education as "a local responsibility and a national priority." That superficially appealing, poll-tested formula is the central problem of federal education policy, not its solution.

The centrist ground of education reform--embodied both by the Bush proposal and, on the Democratic side, by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and the Progressive Policy Institute--is to solve the obvious conflict between national priorities and local responsibility in a managerial fashion: replace federal micro-management with increased federal funding, flexibility for states and local school districts, and ensure accountability through testing or other objective measures of results. Accountability to whom, though?

Vouchers would increase accountability to parents by enabling students to leave failing schools. That appealing option, however, founders on the implacable opposition of the teachers' unions, school bureaucracies and (hence) the Democratic Party. Accountability to the national government, on the other hand, would require adverse consequences for poorly performing schools. Nobody truly believes, however, that Washington would or even should punish already disadvantaged students by cutting federal funds for the schools that have failed them; Congress' proposal to reward failing schools should come as no surprise. And since the federal government, unlike a private company, cannot simply shed its underperformers, it must be prepared to supervise and manage them. "Accountability" thus sacrifices local responsibility for federal control. The status quo continues.

Viewed in its best light, the bipartisan "reform" consensus reflects a politically naive attempt to reconcile the popular but contradictory demands for localism and for comprehensive federal reform. Less charitably but more plausibly, the legislation that is about to be enacted and signed with pomp, circumstance and bipartisan back-slapping represents a triumph of cynical political calculation by both parties.

Not so long ago, Republican lawmakers denounced the Clinton administration's modest testing requirements as a step toward a tyrannical national curriculum. If the same legislators now defend much more demanding testing requirements as a hallmark of federal reform, that is because the White House insisted on GOP support for federal reform--in any form, at any price--as necessary to neutralize the Democrats' advantage on the education issue, especially among suburban women voters. Democrats, for their part, managed to procure added funding, even while protecting teachers' unions and local school bureaucrats against the parental-choice provisions that would have threatened the dominance of those core Democratic constituencies.

One may still hope that both sides are miscalculating. Democratic denunciations of the pending, inordinately expensive bills as unconscionably stingy may yet persuade the Republicans that even the most generous, conciliatory posture will fail to quiet demagogic demands for more of the same. That being so, the GOP might as well propagate real reform--including, especially, accountability to parents. Democrats, for their part, may yet learn that their successful defense of the status quo cannot suppress the demand for education reform but rather shifts that demand from Washington to the states. Of course, the organized interests that oppose meaningful federal reform also hold sway in state capitals. Ongoing reform efforts in such states as Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio show, however, that at least some states can overcome that opposition. Successful experiments in a few states may persuade the Democrats to rethink the orthodoxy that public education needs no reform, only more money.

The best that can be said of the obnoxious federal education "reform" we are about to get is that it cannot prevent state experimentation. That isn't much, but it may be enough to steer serious education reformers to the right (state) forum--and to keep them in reasonably good cheer.

Michael S. Greve is the John G. Searle Scholar at AEI.

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