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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To be fair, Republicans were not exactly overwhelmed by home-state clamor for change. While the Education Leaders Council, a group of dissident education officials such as Arizona's Lisa Graham Keegan, pushed hard for Straight A's, and individual governors wrote in support of it, the Council of Chief State School Officers was bitterly opposed. And the National Governors' Association, reportedly deferring to North Carolina's Jim Hunt, said it could only support Straight A's if Title I were excluded. The problem is that program accounts for two-thirds of the money. No sane state will take the sizable risk of Straight A's -- committing to stronger achievement for poor and minority kids -- if the National Governors' Association prevails. Straight A's without Title I is Thanksgiving without the turkey.

Why do state and local officials cling to old-line categorical programs rather than welcome the freedom to make decisions for themselves? Some say they don't trust Washington to maintain funding for block grants and other nebulous categories that lack specific constituencies. The deeper explanation is that they've succumbed to the Stockholm Syndrome, the peculiar bond that develops between captor and captive, between terrorist and hostage. They've been locked up for so long by the public school establishment that they've begun to see their jailers' interests as their own.

Congressional Republicans display a touch of the Stockholm Syndrome, too. Their longtime captors -- Democrats in general, the Clinton administration in particular, the teachers' unions, and other elements of what Bill Bennett calls "the education blob" -- have them brainwashed and cowering. Republicans have repeatedly pumped extra billions into dubious Education Department programs -- billions more than even the White House has sought. Another symptom was the House's decision to keep the Women's Educational Equity Act.

This tiny program purports to combat school-based discrimination against girls. In reality, it funds left-wing groups to continue harping on alleged injustices that have been resoundingly disproved by such scholars as Diane Ravitch and Judith Kleinfeld. During the renewal process for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the education committee proposed to scrap this bit of federally funded agitprop. But a predictable uproar ensued, and when it was hinted that Republicans were being unkind to girls and women, the leadership crumpled. The House reversed its committee. The Women's Educational Equity Act endures. The terrorists remain in control.

Prior to their autumn collapse, House Republicans were showing signs of emerging from captivity. After all, they advanced some good ideas. Straight A's still represents a major policy innovation that is miles ahead of the slash-and-burn approach of 1995 and fully compatible with the muscular-yet-flexible stance urged by George W. Bush in his recent trio of education speeches. Likewise, portability has the potential to take the principle of school choice, which enjoys ever wider public support, and apply it to federal K-12 programs without losing their focus on needy kids. Both ideas promote accountability combined with freedom, the double-barrelled school reform strategy that is making such promising head-way in states and communities. Taken together, they contain a coherent alternative to 35 years of failed big government programs, one that would resonate with voters while triggering needed change in their children's schools. They are the exact opposite of things like Clinton's class-size-reduction scheme, the Women's Educational Equity Act, and the hyper-regulatory approach to Title I.

But the House's weakened version of Straight A's (and the even weaker "Ed-Flex" measure a few months earlier) was as far as the 106th Congress could get in escaping from its captors. Next year is the Senate's turn. The early signals are not encouraging. Important reforms -- Straight A's, portability, and more -- can be found in bills written by Slade Gorton, Judd Gregg, Bill Frist, and Tim Hutchinson, as well as Joe Lieberman across the aisle.

But Education Committee chairman Jim Jeffords, working behind closed doors with ranking Democrat Ted Kennedy, has drafted a Stockholm-style measure that makes the House look daring. It basically leaves the Elementary and Secondary Education Act intact and adds a whopping new early-childhood education program. If the Senate heads down that road, serious reformers might prefer legislative gridlock until a real education president can take the wheel. But the GOP will have squandered one of its best opportunities to repair American education and to retain control of Congress.

Chester E. Finn Jr. is John M. Olin fellow at the Manhattan Institute, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and co-author of The Educated Child: A Parent's Guide from Preschool through Eighth Grade.