The Magazine


Dec 8, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 13 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR. and JEANNE ALLEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Whatever the 105th Congress accomplished in other fields, in education it muddied everything it touched. The session ended with a debacle on national testing, confusion on charter schools, and utter failure on school choice. The prospects for reforming American education would be brighter if House and Senate had never gone near the subject.

Granted, any gains would have been hard won on school choice, given Bill Clinton's implacable hostility. The same is true for block grants. But charter schools and testing are another story. Here, Congress created its own messes or made the president's worse. When it took up the fiscal '98 budget, it lavished money on useless and harmful programs, often appropriating more than the administration sought. Education for the disabled, for example -- a misguided and out-of-control program that even teachers say is a dead end for most kids who fall into it -- wound up with its biggest budget increase ever.

It's now abundantly clear that, while repairing education is at the top of the public's agenda, the Republicans are no better suited than the Democrats to tackle it in Washington. Every time they try, they make matters worse. In the states, by contrast, many GOP governors (and some Democrats) are forging ahead with important reforms, as are anti-establishment education commissioners in Florida, Arizona, Georgia, and elsewhere.

The conclusion seems obvious: Overhaul the entire federal role in education -- a great project, for which neither party or branch of government appears to have the stomach -- or put education back where the Tenth Amendment placed it, squarely in the hands of the states and of the people.

National standards, combined with national testing, were once a Republican idea, but this go-around it got started at the White House. As always, it proved hugely controversial. To make matters worse, the administration tried to proceed without congressional assent -- and the Education Department bungled the project so spectacularly that even pro-testing conservatives had to wonder whether useful tests could possibly result.

A Republican Congress should have responded by setting the program right. After all, neither of the top priorities of serious reformers -- choice for families and accountability for schools -- can make headway without solid, standards-based measurements of student and school performance. Such measurements should be gathered for the whole country, in a manner that permits both domestic and international comparisons. Today, these data are lacking.

The Senate tried to clean up the mess and restart the standards-and-testing project under an independent board. But a peculiar coalition -- linking Left, Right, and establishment -- formed in the House to halt the idea in its tracks. Then some senators got cold feet; others decided the issue was ideal for political grandstanding. The White House, as usual, threatened vetoes, which would have shut down three cabinet agencies. Congressional leaders sought compromise, and Clinton, needing GOP support for "fast track" legislation, agreed to bargain. But no senator joined the negotiations, and the program as finally revised by House opponents and White House supporters is as coherent as a camel designed by a committee.

Two things will now happen. First, Clinton's reading and math tests will continue to be developed, supposedly under the aegis of the National Assessment Governing Board. This is a good group, but negotiators scrapped a Senate plan for giving it the independence and bipartisanship it needs. In reality, the secretary of education -- hence the White House -- remains in charge. Second, an absurd "study" will be undertaken by the National Academy of Sciences to see whether existing commercial tests can be calibrated to a single standard.

This is a psychometric pipe dream, but even if it weren't, "the Academy" would be the worst possible place to lodge such a project. It will spend many months and many millions. It will assemble committees of "experts" that are exquisitely balanced by race, gender, even age, but that lack any balance in their views. These panels will be packed with ed-school professors and psychologists who never met a test that was good enough to use and who don't want standards-based tests or test-based accountability in the first place. Their ponderous reports will set back efforts to impose accountability on American schools and will make it harder for parents to get usable data on their kids' achievement. Why Republicans in Congress can't see this is beyond our ken.