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11:00 PM, Jan 24, 1999 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
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Besides interfering with state reforms, the federal programs don't accomplish their own objectives. Title I, the biggest of them all, has sought to narrow the achievement gap between disadvantaged and middle-class youngsters. But study after study shows that this effort has failed. The "safe and drug free schools" program has made U.S. schools neither safe nor drug free. The Eisenhower Professional Development Program hasn't even come close to producing the crackerjack math and science teachers that are its stated mission. The Goals 2000 program, as of 1999, has moved us no closer to the national education goals set a decade earlier. And so forth.

Over the years, Washington's response to this dismal record has become ritualized and predictable. An evaluation says the program isn't working. The program's protectors and interest groups then trot out a package of minor amendments and promise that this time, for sure, cross our hearts, the program will succeed so long as it is recalibrated in the ways they suggest. Almost nobody offers any serious alternative -- and those who do are promptly branded enemies of public education. The Congress assents to the recommended tweaking -- after ensuring that no school system will lose any money. And in due course, another evaluation reveals, yet again, that the program is not accomplishing its stated purpose.

That's been the pattern for 34 years. The question is whether this next cycle will be any different. It will not, it's safe to say, if President Clinton and the Department of Education's Marshall Smith call the shots again. But what might federal education policy look like if Republicans set out to change it and, perhaps, made common cause with reform-minded Democrats such as senator Joe Lieberman? Three simple ideas should guide the 106th Congress. Taken together, they would legitimize the hybrid approach to education reform in Washington and buttress rather than frustrate state attempts to make it work. They would also leave states free to embrace other strategies.

FIRST, GET OUT OF THE WAY. LET STATES MINGLE THE dollars from those dozens of categorical programs and spend this money on whatever their students need most: better teachers, new tests, tutors, reading programs, bricks and mortar, whatever. Jurisdictions that prefer to keep receiving their federal dollars wrapped in red-tape should be free to do so. As with welfare reform, change is most apt to come to an entrenched system if states are allowed to make such decisions. Speaker Hastert seems to be heading down this path with his suggestion that the current half-baked federal program known as "ed-flex" be radically strengthened.

Second, strap the federal money to the kids' backs. If a program is meant to assist children who are poor, handicapped, or don't speak English, whatever aid a youngster qualified for should accompany him to whichever school he enrolls in. The money belongs to him, not the bureaucracy.

Third, focus on quality. Although Congress cannot improve schools, it can insist that states show the public how well their schools and students are doing. The only obligation that Uncle Sam should place on states in return for federal education dollars is that they participate in the National Assessment and publicize their results. If they fear the sunlight, they can forgo the money. (The National Assessment needs a legislative overhaul, too, to buttress its independence from the federal Education Department and the school establishment and to make its tests more frequent and more accessible.)

Radical? Nor really. Observe what this is not. It is not a blood-and-guts approach. It does not push states and communities around, substituting one set of Washington-style nostrums for another. It does not claim that vouchers alone will cure America's education maladies. It's not a cry for Uncle Sam to get out of education by scrapping programs, abolishing agencies, and slashing budgets. What, then, is it? Think of it as overdue consciousness-raising about the failure of the time-dishonored Washington approach. Think of it as an unprecedented change to do things differently. And think of it as smart politics, too, especially for Republicans.

It's common knowledge in Washington that administration officials and Democratic congressional aides regale each other with tales of their success in rolling the GOP every time education has been on the agenda since 1994. Education has, in fact, been a debacle for Republicans at the national level. So how come those Republican governors have made it work politically for them?

First, they've made clear that they believe in public education, albeit public education redefined to include charter schools, contract schools, and any other school that's open to the public, financed by the public, and accountable to public authorities for its results.

Second, these governors have been willing to spend money on good education delivered to real kids in real classrooms. But they have no patience for throwing more dollars at obsolete activities, dysfunctional programs, faddish methods, or swelling bureaucracies. They demand value for their money.

Third, they have nearly always cast their proposals in terms of what's on parents' minds, not abstractions such as block grants. What parents (and taxpayers) want for children is basic skills, high standards, safety, sure-fire classroom methods, terrific teachers, and greater say over how the kids are educated. Clinton and company are masters of that rhetoric. So, too, are the GOP governors who have done well with the education issue.

What about the push for bipartisanship and compromise? To date, compromise in the education arena has meant giving the White House nearly everything it wants while attaining no Republican objectives. It's reminiscent of Jimmy Carter's approach to detente. (The other side gets to take Afghanistan and Ethiopia but we get to keep France and Canada.) That's not bipartisanship. It's near-capitulation.

What could be more bipartisan than a hybrid strategy that embraces standards and accountability, on the one hand, and freedom and choice on the other? What compromise could be more timely than one that enables states to take charge of school reform and doesn't try to make them all do the same thing? Yes, most successful Republican governors have been bipartisan in their approach to education, but they have not allowed themselves to be rolled. They have been Reaganesque: principled, resolute, and sly, yet forward-looking, openhanded, and cheerful. The 106th Congress could do worse than to emulate them. It probably will.

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