The Magazine


Jun 15, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 39 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
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Can this be changed? That's the real issue posed by Coverdell's bill. While the bill wouldn't give much aid to any family, it would mark the first time that Uncle Sam had entrusted even a pittance to the K-12 consumer -- as bold a departure for education as private-investment accounts would be for Social Security. That's the precedent that Republicans are keen to establish via Coverdell. (The dead D.C. voucher program embodied the same principle.) And that, of course, is precisely what President Clinton and his allies have vowed to block.

The ESEA reauthorization isn't all that lies ahead. The 1998 and 2000 elections are in sight, and both parties are positioning themselves on the education issue, which has risen to the top of many voters' concerns. At heart, the Democrats remain the party of the public-school monopoly, though they are shrewdly advertising such customer-friendly specials as more teachers, smaller classes, and new classrooms. The GOP isn't nearly so deft -- and polls show most voters have greater faith in the Democrats' handling of education. Nevertheless, the Republican party is seeking to establish itself as the ally of education's millions of consumers. Both sides claim to be interested in quality and in better teachers, and they sometimes converge in support of innovations such as charter schools (a cross between public education and the free market). But their core difference in philosophy and strategy is more conspicuous today than every before.

That difference was on display when the Senate debated the Coverdell bill. Dozens of amendments were offered. The Democrats strove to insert subsidies for school construction and additional teachers. These were rebuffed by the GOP majority, which managed to add a dozen riders of its own. Many were sound: permission for single-sex schools to receive federal aid, a phonics-based literacy program, a resolution that 95 percent of Uncle Sam's money should reach the classroom, and so on. One of the riders -- Slade Gorton's conversion of most current federal programs into an optional "block grant" for states and communities -- is almost as scary to the education establishment as Coverdell's core proposal. (If it survives the conference, it's veto bait, too.)

The Senate blundered, though, when it assented to an amendment by John Ashcroft to ban further development of national tests. After a huge fracas last year, responsibility for shaping voluntary, standards-based tests of 4th-grade reading and 8th-grade math was turned over to the National Assessment Governing Board, which has been quietly and carefully vetting test questions to make sure they're solid. The next step is to "field test" those items to see what happens when children confront them. (Not all test questions "work.") That's what Ashcroft mustered a majority of his colleagues to forbid -- as did the House of Representatives earlier in the year.

Though the current plan for national testing sprang from the Clinton White House, the concept of standards-based national tests goes back to the Bush administration, and Republican politicians should realize that it remains vital to the GOP strategy for reform. No consumer-based system works well unless the consumers have reliable information about how the competing producers are doing. In education, that mostly means test scores, child by child and school by school, tied to high standards that signal what well-educated youngsters should know.

Practically nobody wants federal officials themselves to set those standards and interpret those scores. But practically everyone who has thought seriously about how to reconstruct American education has figured out that some authoritative body must do this. To block such information, as a majority of congressional Republicans voted to do, is to play into the hands of the school establishment -- and continue to deny consumers effective power.

Standards and testing remain GOP blind spots, but the rest of the Coverdell bill is solid. It will, however, almost certainly be vetoed by a president again declaring his fealty to "public education." Republicans lack the votes to override the veto, which means that federal K-12 dollars will continue flowing exclusively to producers. The stage will be set for a clash in the coming elections -- as well as in the year to follow, when Congress turns to programs that dispense serious money.

Chester E. Finn Jr. is John M. Olin fellow at the Hudson Institute and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.