The Magazine


Jun 2, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 37 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
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The post-big-government era never actually arrived in the field of education. Its chances at best were about as real as the prospect of finding true love with someone your parents told you to look up. Neither Congress nor the White House was ever seriously interested.

As President Clinton noted in his May 17 radio address, the new budget deal contains the biggest expansion in federal education spending since Lyndon Johnson occupied the Oval Office. When all the new college tax credits and deductions are added up, it will indeed be "the largest single increase in higher education since the G.I. bill in 1945." The budget agreement also provides for at least one other sizable item on the White House education shopping list: the new "America Reads" program, meant to place a million " volunteers" (many of them paid) in the nation's classrooms at a cost of several hundred million dollars annually.

But the generous picnic served up by the budget pact is just part of the federal feast being cooked for the U.S. education establishment and the interest groups that regularly dine with it. A special-education bill that sailed through Congress the other week, far from shrinking or restructuring this heavy-handed program, expands and further complicates it. Looming next on the horizon is reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which is all but certain to turn into another contest between Republicans and Democrats to see which side can lavish more money on an enterprise that is already sadly over-built, over-priced, under-productive, and lacking in quality control.

In education, at least, big government, far from having outlived its time, seems to have been reborn. What's remarkable about its current growth is the gusto with which the Republican Congress is joining in. Today, it's hard even to recall that moment two years ago when GOP leaders spoke of getting Washington off the backs of schools and communities, of empowering parents rather than bureaucrats and interest groups, of repealing harmful programs and blockgranting others, even of putting the Department of Education out of the misery it causes.

Such words drifted away on the same breezes that carried off Clinton's widely noted claims about big government's demise. In education, I judge, he never meant them. Congressional leaders may once have been serious about the task, but they were outfoxed by the administration, which ran a deft election campaign on the premise that the way to gauge a politician's commitment to education is by how much he is willing to spend and how many programs he supports. Well before Election Day 1996, the GOP majority was vying with the White House over who could write the fatter budget for federal education programs, good, bad, and indifferent. Since few in that majority could explain why a top-to-bottom overhaul would solve the country's education problems better than another injection of federal cash and regulation, the Republicans simply abandoned the fight. They were Kasparov to the president's Big Blue.

Like IBM's supercomputer playing at chess, American education today is, in William James's vivid phrase, a "tyrannical machine." It is its own boss, answering to no one but its innumerable organizational "stakeholders." It scorns its own customers while tirelessly pursuing its own interests: expansion of its revenues and defense of its monopoly. Serious challenges to this machine are now being made in some states and communities. The spread of charter schools, contract management of public schools, privately funded voucher programs, even a few examples of the publicly supported sort, attest to the widening revolt in the countryside. Some people actually seem to be waking up to the fact that the system squanders both their money and their children.

But the rebels are a long way from the capital city. There we witness the opposite: deepening tyranny, more money, bigger government, and worse policy. Now, though, it's bipartisan bad policy.

Look again at that budget agreement. Its juiciest education windfall is a set of tuition tax breaks intended to make the "13th and 14th grades" universal. Virtually every analyst who has looked at this idea finds it misbegotten. The problem with higher education isn't too few people starting the process. We already have more college than high-school students and the world's loftiest matriculation rates: two-thirds of all high-school graduates go straight to college and more follow later. The great problem is that so many of those who enter aren't prepared for college-level work because they learned so little beforehand.