The Magazine

The GOP Congress Fails Again

Congressional Republicans capitulate to some really bad education ideas

Nov 29, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 11 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
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THE NEW YORK TIMES'S lead education reporter seemed surprised by his own discovery: Hiring more teachers for U.S. schools is harder than it sounds. In New York City this year, seven-eighths of those teachers hired with Washington's help have been doubled up in classrooms with other teachers. There was nowhere else to put them (and the city had to spend part of its windfall to show them how to team-teach). Moreover, just half are certified in their subjects. In tiny Raymondville, Missouri, on the other hand, there's plenty of classroom space but the federal aid formula yielded barely $ 7,000 for the whole school system, enough to hire just one part-time classroom aide.

School officials in both communities welcomed the extra cash, of course, but as their experience showed the Times reporter, "It takes more than money to put an effective teacher in front of a classroom."

That's what makes Congress's capitulation to the White House on the fractious class-size-reduction program so pathetic. Just as Republicans are starting to wrap their minds around a coherent strategy for overhauling federal education aid, Clinton roars back with a politically shrewd, Great Society program that wastes money, ignores most of the research, shoves states and communities around, focuses on what goes into schools rather than what comes out, creates manifold new problems, and fails to accomplish anything important for children. Yet for the second year in a row, Congress caves. Once is a mistake. Twice is fecklessness.

That pretty much describes the first half of the 106th Congress when it comes to education. Lyndon Johnson might as well still be in charge. Big, categorical, Washington-knows-best programs remain the order of the day. Education Department enforcers ride high. State reform schemes and local priorities are undermined. And Clinton runs political circles around Capitol Hill. No wonder surveys find voters more inclined to trust Democrats with the education issue.

Though the new teachers program got most of the ink, the year's premier blunder was the House's renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. This was the first time a Republican majority has ever had a chance to recast the centerpiece of Washington's role in K-12 schooling, and, mostly, they blew it.

Take the so-called Student Results Act, which Education Committee chairman Bill Goodling described as "the largest component of [the GOP] strategy this Congress to improve elementary and secondary education." It doesn't even deal with the whole of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, mainly just the $ 8 billion Title I program for disadvantaged youngsters. Here, the House embraced the core Clinton strategy: Since Title I, by common consent, hasn't worked these past 35 years, tighten the regulatory screws. And it rejected the only serious idea for overhauling the program: Strap federal money to the backs of low-income youngsters and let them take it to the schools of their choice. Dubbed "portability," this would have transformed the federal role from one of subsidizing school bureaucracies to one of directly aiding needy children. Instead of ever weightier regulation, it would have introduced accountability via the marketplace.

Yet portability was voted down in committee, and two separate versions were clobbered on the floor. Although the Student Results Act purports to allow children trapped in low-performing schools to exit to other (public) schools, their federal aid dollars stay in the failing schools.

One beam of light, however, shone through the gloom. A few hours after wimping out on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the House narrowly passed the "Straight A's" bill, which treats participating states and cities like giant charter schools, offering them sweeping freedom to spend federal dollars as they see fit in exchange for palpable gains in pupil achievement. Should this measure make it through the Senate and survive a White House veto threat, it would herald a new chapter in U.S. education policy.

Yet Straight A's was bobtailed during the first stage of its legislative journey, turned into a pilot program for no more than 10 states, and shackled by a "hold harmless" provision that assures districts as much money as they would get from the Title I program absent Straight A's. These concessions bought only a couple of Democratic votes and no White House support. They were made to keep skittish Republicans on board. The prospect of actually altering the ground rules of federal education policy gives palpitations to GOP "moderates."