The Magazine


Dec 8, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 13 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR. and JEANNE ALLEN
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Why, then, is Washington so ineffectual when it comes to the most urgent item on the country's domestic agenda?

Let's give credit where it's due. President Clinton has largely maintained the education status quo while styling himself a great reformer. (Whatever he actually believes, he operates within constraints that block serious change.) He's done that by co-opting the GOP agenda, speaking deftly and often about education, and branding as "anti-education" everything Republicans try to accomplish in Washington. In reality, his administration is doing great damage to the reform movement (witness the continuing depredations of the Office for Civil Rights). But the president sounds like the head cheerleader for change rather than chief guardian of the establishment's crown jewels.

For their part, the Republicans stutter and mumble and generally seem schizophrenic about education. Their philosophy properly calls for shifting control out of Washington bureaucracies to states, communities, and parents. But the Republicans also have a bad case of "programitis," the illusion that only by manipulating federal programs can they accomplish anything good and rebut the Democrats' charge that they're cheap and uncaring. Worse, they lack courage. They're unwilling to confront Clinton on his administration's follies or the school establishment on its self-interestedness. And they haven't figured out how to explain that America's education problems would be eased if Uncle Sam made fewer decisions and parents and governors made more. (It doesn't help that the chairmen of the relevant committees in both chambers have been in harness a long time and have developed a Potomacentric view.)

We're not naive devolutionists. States often do a lousy job of setting standards. Parents lack information. Some charter programs are phony. The teachers' unions are even stronger in school-board elections than on Capitol Hill. Real change in education won't flow automatically from decentralization. Like everyone else, local school authorities benefit when someone is watching over their shoulder, auditing their performance, and using the bully pulpit to praise, blame, and exhort.

But what a hash the feds have made of it! They're lax where they should be tough-minded, regulation-crazed where they should let up. They throw money at education problems in the archaic belief that this will produce improvement. They trust the producers more than the consumers and the school establishment more than governors and mayors. They fund myriad programs that have been shown not to work. They waste a ton of money on middlemen and managers. They shackle serious reform initiatives that originate outside the Beltway. They refuse to acknowledge that everyone benefits when education's consumers can vote with their feet as well as their ballots.

Taken as a whole, Congress's attempts to enact national education policies this year were so mired in politics and pandering that the results are either irrelevant or harmful. The president has held the upper hand on this issue since he took office. But he's a prisoner of the public-school establishment and the old statist agenda.

Clinton, of course, remains in Washington, as do his education cadres. But the Congress has finished its session and disbanded. May the legislators stay home a long time, reading and fishing and talking with their constituents. When they return, let them try following three simple principles: Uncle Sam should keep out of virtually all education decisions; federal education money should flow to governors and mayors and parents; and dollars should follow kids to the schools of their choice. That's it. It's actually plenty. It would revolutionize thirty years of federal education policy -- and advance real reform.

One challenge would remain: to develop mechanisms for encouraging reform across the country without depending on the federal government. Such reform would be national, yet not federal. In Washington, that's still an oxymoron. But think about it. It's got potential.

Jeanne Allen is president of the Center for Education Reform. Chester E. Finn Jr. is John M. Olin fellow at Hudson Institute.