The Magazine

EDUCATION

Jun 2, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 37 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
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Almost a third of today's freshmen require remediation -- and more would if academic standards hadn't also slipped. That leads to costly compensatory classes and a soaring college dropout rate. Assuring everyone a free ride through grades 13 and 14 is like paying for high school twice. It signals the futility of reforming grades 1 through 12. And it will tempt every college in the land -- already costly and sluggish -- to hike its prices to harvest the new federal windfall.

As for "America Reads," the more one knows about reading, the less sense the program makes. The reason a great many schoolkids never learn to read well is not that their classrooms lack adults; it's that those adults don't know how to teach reading. Says Dr. Reid Lyon, the National Institutes of Health's chief authority on reading: "Teachers want to do the best they can. It's just that they don't have the conceptual tools. They weren't trained in those. So a lot of this stuff tutors are supposed to do, unless they're provided with that information, I don't see how you would expect that to improve anything."

If you believe that a million fresh-faced amateurs, overseen by 11,000 AmeriCorps volunteers, after brief training by the nation's colleges of education, are going to bring proper phonemic methods of reading instruction into classrooms where the full-time teachers don't do that well, you're more of an optimist about these things than I am.

Now look again at the new special-education law. Actually, you will have to look for the first time, since it sped through the House and Senate so fast, nobody had time to examine it prior to enactment. It was written behind closed doors by a handful of congressional aides, administration activists, and special-interest lobbyists. Their sole objective was to reach consensus among those in the room. Anything they could agree on was deemed enactable, hence wise public policy.

The fruit of this secretive process -- a vast, tangled piece of legislation whose real workings are barely understood by anyone -- was whisked through both chambers. Trent Lott's chief of staff choreographed the production -- without amendments, lest House and Senate versions differ at all. (So long as identical versions are passed, there's no need for a conference committee, hence no opportunity for delays that might give people a chance to scrutinize the measure.)

Naturally, this well-greased legislation passed by huge margins. Though hailed as an example of bipartisanship, its enactment was more like a case study in special-interest politics. The bill makes a few small improvements in a sorely troubled program. But each of its "reforms" invites new problems - - and more government. Consider these three:

P The current program gives a state additional money if it "classifies" more children as disabled -- a genuinely perverse incentive. The new bill shifts to a formula based on population and poverty -- but that new formula doesn't kick in until Congress appropriates almost 2 billion additional dollars. Let's not be surprised if that day dawns soon.

P Supporters claim the bill shrinks the portion of federal special-ed dollars going to overhead and boosts the part going to classrooms. But that isn't quite true. The increase actually goes for "capacity building," which means teacher training, which means another plump subsidy for the nation's colleges of education.

P The bill's most controversial provision -- the issue that bogged it down during the last Congress -- deals with disabled kids who bring weapons to school. Can they be expelled like other students? (Indeed, another federal law requires schools to suspend or expel weapons-bearing students.) The short answer is no. Under the new plan, the school system can never slough off responsibility for educating a disabled youngster, no matter what he does or to whom. It may move him to another program, but only temporarily and only after jumping through dozens of procedural hoops. Nor does the measure acknowledge that, in the words of a Georgia educator, "teeth and feet and hands can be weapons just as much as knives can."

For principals and school boards faced with disruptive disabled pupils, the new law actually provides less leeway than the old one, which allows for 10- day suspensions. Now, according to a Knoxville school attorney who tracks these issues, "you won't be able to do anything but move the child to another school." (To such concerns, the Education Department's chief enforcer tartly replied that educators should quit complaining and should instead learn new methods of behavior modification to prevent classroom disruptions. Perhaps she hasn't done much teaching lately.)

More revealing than any changes made by the measure, however, are its silences -- the big-government assumptions it leaves untouched.