The Magazine


Jul 19, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 41 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
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As BILL CLINTON ROARS INTO ACTION, demagoguing the education issue, he proves he's still a master manipulator of the domestic agenda and that when it comes to schools, he remains more surefooted and silver-tongued than anyone on Capitol Hill.

This latest installment of the education debate pits the administration's focus-group-tested (and union adored) class-size reduction scheme against an earnest GOP reform proposal called the Teacher Empowerment Act. Having cleared the House education committee on June 30, this bill should reach the House floor in mid summer. It merges several existing programs, giving states and localities greater leeway to spend nearly $ 2 billion per year to improve student achievement by strengthening teachers. This "teacher empowerment" can take many forms, including training, testing, changes in certification, and even a limited form of vouchers ("Teacher Opportunity Payments" or TOPs) that would allow teachers to choose their own forms of "professional development."

This Republican proposal is generally sound, but not without faults. TOPs, for example, only click in when a school district consistently fails to raise teacher quality through its own programs. In other words, they are more like punishment for bureaucrats than a right for teachers. Another fault: The bill entrusts less than five percent of its funds to states, even though governors' offices and legislative chambers are where most of the energy for reforming U.S. schools is found. Most of the money would keep flowing directly to the school districts, few of which can be called dynamic in terms of leadership or innovation.

One might have expected the bill to ruffle some feathers, since it practically ignores Clinton's once-cherished Goals 2000 program. But the administration doesn't seem to mind at all. Goals don't poll nearly as well as smaller classes, which have become the new object of the president's transient affections. The popularity of smaller classes enabled the White House to bully Congress last year into okaying the famous "100,000 new teachers" program, which has its own dedicated funding stream. Republicans have had second thoughts ever since, and the Teacher Empowerment Act affords them a chance to undo the mischief.

The new measure still makes districts spend a portion of their teacher dollars on class size reduction. It just doesn't say how much. One dollar, evidently, would suffice. Thus there would no longer be a separate funding stream. Each community would decide whether to spend its federal largesse on more teachers or better ones. Republicans believe, apparently, that simply killing Clinton's effort to reduce class size is too risky; keeping just a remnant of it, however, may prove even riskier.

The president, of course, has been more than happy to oblige Republicans in their request for a rematch on the issue of class size. Here is how he seized the issue in his weekly radio address on June 26:

I'm pleased to announce that later this week we'll deliver on our promise -- with $ 1.2 billion in grants to help states and local school districts begin hiring the first 30,000 well-trained teachers for the new school year. . . . Now we must finish the job. Unfortunately, there are some in Congress who are backing away from their commitment to reduce class size. Last year, Congress came together across party lines to make this promise to the American people. They should come together again this year to keep it. . . . So, today, again I call on Congress to put politics aside and put our children's future first, and finish the job of hiring 100,000 highly trained teachers. We know smaller classes will help them succeed in school. We know higher-quality teaching will help them succeed. We already have the plan to make it happen if Congress keeps its word.

Note the faux bipartisanship which, at least in education, has come to mean "Republicans are welcome to do things my way." Note, too, the bald claim that placing kids in smaller classes will "help them succeed in school."