The Magazine


Jul 19, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 41 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
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That the case against reducing class size is strong may not help Republicans. Indeed, a few days before Clinton spoke, the American Institutes of Research released an appraisal of the first two years of California's ambitious class-shrinking program, launched by former governor Pete Wilson at a cost of some $ 1.5 billion annually. The results were at best mixed: a tiny boost in pupil achievement accompanied by a falloff in teacher qualifications, an acute classroom shortage, a worrisome shift of veteran teachers from cities to suburbs, little change in instructional practices, and the distraction of educators from other urgent reforms such as California's tough new academic standards and the restoration of phonics-based reading. As the analysts noted, "This 'one size' intervention does not fit all districts equally well. . . . Urban districts, in particular, have been put under considerable stress."

Almost every study of class-size reduction has found mixed results attained at a very high cost. The fact is that U.S. class sizes and pupil-teacher ratios have been declining for half a century with nothing to show in return by way of improved achievement. But smaller classes are undeniably popular with parents, nearly all of whom have the gut feeling that Ashley and Matt would fare better with fewer classmates to distract their teachers. Smaller classes are also very popular with teachers and teachers' unions because they mean less work for more teachers.

So Clinton is in political clover. Meanwhile, the congressional leadership has recently unveiled its "Straight A's" initiative (formerly known as "Super Ed Flex"). Straight A's will, if enacted, effect a historic shift in Washington's approach to K-12 education, replacing (for states that select this option) federal micromanagement of schools with federal insistence on stronger academic results. Although watered down in the drafting, it's an important proposal that enjoys the sponsorship of House committee chairman Bill Goodling and the support of House and Senate leaders. The unveiling of Straight A's was brilliantly staged. The sun was shining brightly, kids were cheering from inside a yellow school bus parked nearby, and the Capitol dome was gleaming in the background. Unfortunately, except for Sen. Slade Gorton and Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the Republican legislators announcing this momentous initiative came off looking ill prepared.

They neglected to point out that Straight A's is a profound rebuke to Clinton's hyper-regulatory approach and a fundamental alternative to 35 years of failed federal programs. They didn't stress the bill's shift from inputs to results. And they were quickly put on the defensive by press questions for which they were unprimed, especially queries about whether dollars would be taken from "high need" schools. (Answer: Under Straight A's, states and districts decide where and how to spend the money but the academic gains for which they're accountable must include their neediest kids.)

Even when they have a good education idea and a worthy proposal, congressional Republicans are rhetorically clumsy and palpably afraid they will again be charged with slash-and-burn, anti-kid policies. Which, on cue, is precisely what the White House accuses them of, directly, in pointed comments by President Clinton, Vice President Gore, and education secretary Richard Riley, and indirectly, in tough questions planted with journalists who don't know much about education but are hungry for controversy. Ironically, Republicans have "increased the funding for education over the last three years far more than any Democrat ever did, and yet the Democrats continue to get the credit for it," as the National Education Association's top lobbyist recently said. Thank Clinton's demagoguery and GOP fecklessness.

Unless something changes fairly soon, the protectors of the status quo and their friends in the White House and Congress will continue to prevail. And Clinton and the program-a-day presidential candidate Gore will rack up another sizable win in the political sphere. This will be bad for kids, bad for school reform, and bad for American education.

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