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GETTING SERIOUS ABOUT THE SCHOOLS

11:00 PM, Jan 24, 1999 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
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THE 106TH CONGRESS, ONCE IT GETS PAST THE impeachment drama, will have a rare chance to tackle another set of Washington-style crimes and misdemeanors: 34 years of federal education policy and programs so misguided that today they undermine the prospects of reforming the nation's woeful schools.


Most of the big federal-aid programs are due for renewal this year. They are also ripe for rethinking. Three decades after Lyndon Johnson rammed through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, it's generally acknowledged that the 60-odd programs enshrined in that massive statute (at an annual cost of some $ 11 billion nowadays) have failed to accomplish their goals or solve the country's nagging problems of school effectiveness and pupil achievement. Indeed, these programs now get in the way of change-minded states and communities.


Besides ESEA, key measures slated for review by the new Congress include the administration's signature Goals 2000 program and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, aka "the nation's report card." The federal role in education research is up for extension, too.


In the legislative round that begins this year, the Republicans will be in charge of reshaping ESEA for the first time. At a moment when U.S. school performance remains dismal, when surveys show education to be the domestic issue most on people's minds, and when it's clear that Clinton and his allies have outmaneuvered the GOP whenever this topic has been on the table, we might suppose that congressional majority leaders would place this at the top of their agenda. We might also expect them to make common cause with their party's successful "education governors," for example, the Bush brothers, John Engler, Tommy Thompson, and Tom Ridge, all of whom have launched bold state-level school reforms that are showing good results and have even managed to turn K-12 education into a Republican political asset.


Perhaps congressional Republicans will find a way to do likewise. The governors have been visiting Capitol Hill. The Senate's keenest education reformer, Georgia's Paul Coverdell, is beavering away on legislation. There are sounds of activity on the House side as well, including audible interest from Speaker Hastert. But the White House is working harder and faster. It came out of the 1998 election with the education wind at its back and wants to maintain that lead during the coming presidential contest. Beginning with his State of the Union address, President Clinton will again trumpet his education agenda. He will trot out more focus-group-tested proposals for new programs such as school construction and after-school services. And he will submit an ESEA reauthorization proposal that tweaks the statute further in the direction of what educrats call "systemic reform."


That means top-down efforts to change whole state and local school systems via central planning: centrally determined goals and standards, centrally managed licensure and accreditation schemes, centrally monitored inputs and services, and centrally enforced accountability strategies. Systemic reform is the essence of Goals 2000 and was the driving philosophy of ESEA's 1994 reauthorization. One of the nation's keenest systematizers is Marshall Smith, former Stanford education dean and now number two at the Department of Education.


Systemic reformers trust experts and favor government-style solutions. They have no faith in markets, scant confidence in laymen, and little interest in diversity unless it is centrally planned. They're skeptical of charter schools, hostile to vouchers, uneasy with private enterprise, and wary of too much involvement by politicians and parents in important education decisions.


Since the nation was declared "at risk" in 1983 because of the shoddy state of our K-12 education system, the systemic philosophy has governed nearly everything done in Washington. President Reagan sought to reverse the trend -- he proposed voucherizing the big Title I program, for example -- but was ignored by Congress. Bush offered a blend of systemic and marketplace strategies, but the latter got nowhere on Capitol Hill. Even Bill Clinton's first Goals 2000 proposal was sent back for redrafting because the plan wasn't sufficiently centralized to suit House Democrats. And during the past six years, almost every effort to inject more consumer-centered or marketplace-style reform has come to naught, either perishing in committee rooms or struck down by Clinton's veto pen.