The Magazine


May 31, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 35 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
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One would like to say that the education battle lines are being drawn in Washington, but it's doubtful the GOP will amount a coherent counterattack. Congressional leaders' initial response to the Clinton plan has been, "Yes, but." There is no sign of effective leadership on this issue on the Republican side of the aisle. After an initial flurry of attention, the country's energetic "education governors" seem to have surrendered the field. Although the "Super Ed-Flex" idea -- giving a handful of states greater freedom with their federal dollars in return for evidence of improved pupil achievement -- is attracting some interest on Capitol Hill, it is already being compromised with conditions, set-asides, and hold-harmless provisions that will render it practically meaningless.

Just as Gore is gambling that, when it comes to education, voters prefer action to inaction and concrete programs to quibbles about federalism, so are Clinton and Riley assuming that the country is ready for an activist government to take charge of the schools. Sixteen years after being declared a "nation at risk," the United States still provides a K-12 education that is perilously weak. The Democrats have decided that the public is weary of false starts and excuses and is prepared to let Washington run things, may be even to reward politicians who promise vigor. For their part -- to their great shame and likely political cost -- the Republicans still cannot explain what a better approach would be.

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