The Magazine

Ending Ed Policy As We Know It

Are Republican senators up to the task?

Mar 13, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 25 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR. and NINA SHOKRAII REES
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Instead of embracing Straight A's, however, Republican senators are prepared to give it a peck on the cheek while hugging Straight C's to their bosoms. A gaggle of GOP moderates and education committee aides apparently haven't noticed that the NGA is killing a terrific opportunity to make a change that the country needs. Neither they nor the governors -- 30 of whom are Republicans -- seem to see that the NGA is the wrong group to put in charge of the education agenda. It consists of Beltway insiders who intend to "get along" and so remain where they are for years to come. That's precisely the attitude that has made people sick of Washington -- and that emboldened governors to launch their education reforms in the first place.

Everyone we asked to explain the mysterious appeal of Straight C's agreed on the answer: It's bipartisan. But bipartisanship is curious. It seems to become a virtue in Washington only when Republicans would otherwise do things their way. Nowhere is this clearer than in education policy, where the GOP was marginalized for three decades. The current NGA infatuation with bipartisanship in federal policy is a criterion that would stop many of its members dead in their tracks when it comes to reforming education in their own states. Why is bipartisanship something the Senate leadership now covets? Did consensus produce the bold experiments that led to welfare reform?

As long as no one can show that Washington's approach to education is bringing improvements, Uncle Sam should be humble, experimental, and encouraging of states that yearn to try something different -- on condition that they produce results. Straight A's would do for education what reform did for welfare. It would be nice if its appeal were bipartisan, but that is no litmus test for sound policy -- and it certainly isn't good politics for Republicans.