The Magazine


May 31, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 35 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
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Those vague promises, however, are the good cop speaking. A few days later, education secretary Richard Riley unveiled the Clinton administration's plan to overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and Goals 2000 program. Congress last reworked these huge statutes just before the Republican victory of 1994, and at the time critics termed them a worrisome expansion of federal control over the nation's schools.

Well, hold onto your hat and lock your children up some place safe. The era of big government is back with a vengeance. So far as one can tell from Riley's remarks and Education Department press releases -- the hundreds of pages of fine print are not yet public -- we are looking at an epochal enlargement of federal control of U.S. schools. Not since the heyday of the federal courts' incursions into school management in the name of desegregation have we seen anything like this Potomac power grab.

But the lever this time is not enforcement of constitutional rights. It's the lure of federal dollars. The administration is saying that states and communities that want to keep getting their share of the $ 12 billion or so in school aid that flows each year from Washington must henceforth obey many more rules that flow from Washington. The operative phrases in the Department's 17-page handout are "require states" and "states must."

The new requirements are breathtaking in their audacity. In the name of "fairness," for example, Riley would require all the schools in a district to have "equivalent pupil-teacher ratios, their teachers [to] have equal qualifications, and the curriculum, instructional materials, range of courses and the condition of safety of school facilities all must be comparable." He doesn't mean "comparable" as in "able to be compared." He means identical, uniform, equal, unvarying.

In the name of "qualified" teachers, the administration would require every state to ensure that 95 percent of its instructors are "fully certified" -- that is, products of the teacher-education cartel -- leaving districts and charter schools even less leeway to hire other people who might do a better job.

In the name of a "stimulating, career-long learning environment for teachers," the administration would require every district to set aside 10 percent of its Title I funding for "professional development." In other words, take $ 800 million a year out of direct services to low income children and spend it instead on the motley array of prosperous hucksters, itinerant experts, and mediocre ed schools that dispense "in-service education."

In the name of orderly schools, the administration would "require states to hold school districts and schools accountable for having discipline policies that focus on prevention, are consistent and fair." Imagine the regulatory apparatus that will be needed to see whether 50 states have done this satisfactorily in 16,000 local districts and 85,000 public schools. But it's even more complicated, for the White House is sensitive to concerns that tough discipline will actually lead to troublesome kids' being kicked out of school. So yet another provision would require states "to ensure that schools have a plan to help students who are expelled or suspended continue to meet the challenging state standards." Think of it as the Bureau of High Standards for Bad Kids.

Were all this and more to happen, the U.S. secretary of education would become the national superintendent of schools. Reform-minded governors and mayors might as well fold their education tents. Advocates of education improvement via school diversity and competition would face a historic setback. Parents -- while they may find themselves required to become more "involved" with their children's schools -- will have ever less say in their kids' education. And Al Gore will be made a more honest man, for the country whose presidency he seeks will have an education system far more like the unitary, nationalized, government-run versions of other lands.