WASHINGTON--In the upside-down world of journalistic values, where conflict almost always trumps consensus and argument usually drowns out agreement, the news about President Bush's education proposal focused on the possible fight over school vouchers.
Vouchers--which use public funds to pay tuition at private or parochial schools--are a minor part of the Bush proposal, a provisional final option if all the strategies for improving public schools fail in a few districts. This is a far cry from the sweeping vouchers-for-all proposal that California voters rejected last November and even from the more-limited voucher plan on the Michigan ballot, which also went down to defeat. Bush is no education ideologue bashing his head against that stone wall of public opposition.
The significance of the Bush plan lies in three other areas. First, and probably most important, is the simple fact of a Republican president saying, in his first week in office, that "bipartisan education reform will be the cornerstone of my administration."
For most of the past four decades, the GOP has challenged the legitimacy of the federal role in education, and even six years ago it was still trying to abolish the Department of Education. Last year, prodded by President Clinton, a Republican Congress voted the biggest single-year increase in school spending--$6.5 billion--in history. And now the new Republican president has declared that improvements in those schools "will not come by disdaining or dismantling the federal role in education. I believe strongly in local control of schools. I trust local folks to chart the path to excellence. But educational excellence for all is a national issue, and at this moment is a presidential priority."
That is a historic shift in policy whose importance should not be minimized. It sets the stage for genuine bipartisanship, as evidenced by the striking similarities between the Bush plan and one put forward the same day by a group of centrist Democrats led by Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Al Gore's vice presidential running mate.
There are two very large issues that must be resolved before this potential agreement can become settled national policy. Both Bush and the Lieberman group propose an increase in federal funding--plus a consolidation of narrowly tailored programs into a few broad block grants. In return, states and local districts would have to demonstrate that the needy pupils who are the principal targets of this aid are making real educational progress.
That sounds like a no-brainer, but in reality, each of these narrow programs has a constituency among teachers, administrators and parents, eager to assure that the earmarked funds are not diverted to other purposes. Their resistance sank the Lieberman proposal in the last Congress. Overcoming their opposition will test the clout of Bush and his allies in both parties this year.
The second issue is how to assure the accountability that everyone wants. Bush proposes annual tests, with public results, but would leave their design to the states, finessing the political sensitivity of a national testing system. But if tests are to be used to reward and punish schools, as he proposes, some method must be found to assure their rigor. And the recent experience of many states suggests that if tests are too rigorous, parents and teachers will protest the results, and pressure will mount to ease them--weakening the standards.
Devising a system that assures accountability and yet leaves sufficient flexibility for educators is a daunting task. Even if these problems are solved, the reality is that the 7 percent of education spending that comes from Washington is hardly enough by itself to bring improved quality to the schools. That is the challenge for local school officials and teachers.
The good news is that the new education secretary, Roderick Paige, has the right background and credentials to do the job. The former Houston school superintendent is, even on first meeting, a formidable presence. When I asked his wife about a description someone had given me of Paige--"not much on glad-handing but very focused and action-oriented"--she said: "That is exactly right."
In Houston, Paige demonstrated that he understands that reform means aligning every part of the system--teachers, students, curriculum and facilities--in a continuous process of setting and meeting ever-higher standards. He knows that change comes from a shared commitment to the goal of quality education for every child, not from some quick fix or magic bullet. The lesson of quality and customer service is one American industry and business learned in the 1980s, and Paige is perfectly positioned to help American education apply that same principle now.
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