The Magazine

Bush's Education Semi-reform

Don't open the champagne bottles yet

Mar 12, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 25 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
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THE BUSH TEAM made a strong start in education, sending forth its ambitious school-reform plan early and with much hoopla, cozying up to key members of Congress, including ranking education-committee Democrats Ted Kennedy and George Miller, recruiting every Republican in sight to cheer for the proposal, and barnstorming the country on its behalf. Many positive vibes followed.


This is a wide-ranging plan, 28 pages even in sketchy form, meant to bring federal education policy into the 21st century, revamp dozens of failed programs, and redirect billions of wasted dollars. (It also adds more programs and billions.)


At its heart is the demand that public schools receiving federal education dollars be held to account for their students' academic results, that rewards come to those that boost achievement, that sanctions follow failure, and that progress be monitored via testing. Lots of testing. Texas-style testing, with states required to examine every child annually in grades 3 through 8 and with the federally managed National Assessment serving as outside auditor. (Unlike Clinton, with his proposed national test, however, Bush would have each state select its own test, based on standards of its own choosing.)


Early press accounts and political reactions erroneously focused on the program's faint whiff of vouchers -- instantly dubbed a "deal-breaker" by every Democrat in town. Yet this is no voucher program. Only if sundry other interventions have no effect -- and not sooner than six years after the bill's enactment -- would a failing public school face the possibility that its federally aided pupils might leave for private schools. If the accountability program succeeds, however, that day will never dawn, no child will ever change schools and no vouchers will flow. To those who want Washington to foster school choice, this was a letdown. So, too, was the plan's neglect of "portability," the idea that federal aid dollars should be apportioned to students rather than school systems and should follow them to whatever schools their states and communities let them attend. (Though many forms of school choice are now widespread, Washington's LBJ-era programs still pump their dollars into the student's school district of residence.)


We know from Jay Greene's recent evaluation of Jeb Bush's Florida program that the merest threat of vouchers can speedily prod awful public schools to become at least a little better. That's the reasoning behind brother George's proposal to deploy vouchers as the ultimate weapon in his accountability arsenal. This, of course, was also the feature of the Bush plan that appealed to conservatives nervous about its big-spending, big-government elements. Even before its unveiling, however, the White House began to fudge the school-choice parts. Indeed, the president's people have hinted that, at the end of the day, testing is the only part of their many-splendored education program that they will die for. As word of this filtered through Washington, alarming Republicans who favor choice and are wary of mandatory testing, liberal Democrats proposed tens of billions more for existing programs. Though the new Bush budget is more generous toward education than anything else, it cannot win that sort of bidding war.


Thus within days of his plan's grand debut, President Bush was disheartening the right with his lack of ardor for vouchers and rankling the left with his comparative tightfistedness. Meanwhile, the education blob began rallying its usual defenses against testing and accountability.


The White House congressional strategy was murky, too, more Austin-style than Washington. In other high-tension fields, such as tax policy and health care, the Bush team has shrewdly welcomed proposals far bolder than its own, as well as measures that do less, thus making its recommendations seem the moderate middle course. (In his February 22 press conference, Bush even used the Goldilocks phrase "just right" to describe his tax porridge.) In education, however, the White House let it be known that it would rather nobody offered a full-bore conservative alternative. Much of its time has been spent seeking common ground with Democrats. With floor debate scheduled for early March, education committee co-leaders Republican Jim Jeffords and Democrat Ted Kennedy crafted a bill that contains no "controversial" provisions. In education land, of course, the only way to avoid controversy is to extend -- and add money to -- current programs, making no significant reforms at all. A lively debate on testing lies ahead. But it seems unlikely that vouchers and portability will even rear their heads on the Senate floor. (Bush also proposed a discretionary fund for school-choice experiments and a tax break for families saving for private schools. These provisions, too, are in the gun sights of congressional Democrats and education establishment sharp-shooters.)


The House -- which soon opens hearings on the Bush plan and rival bills -- could be different, but new education committee chairman John Boehner will have trouble holding together his fractious Republicans, much less finding enough Miller-led Democrats to muster the votes for real reform. Even the president's signature testing proposal is in jeopardy. Once one has divulged one's bottom line, after all, that becomes the starting point for further compromise. As testing comes to play the role in education debates that Jerusalem plays in Middle East peace negotiations, testing is where concessions are ultimately demanded. Especially with no decoys on the field -- such as a conservative voucher bill -- Bush has the dubious honor of having offered the most radical proposal. In a "bipartisan" era, that's not a great place to be.


From every corner demands are pouring in to soften key features of the White House plan. The National Governors' Association wants the statewide testing requirement eased (to allow for local options that will inevitably yield non-comparable data). Some House Republicans are nervous about mandating use of the National Assessment as an external check on state progress. "New" Democrats and "moderate" GOP senators are loath to cede to states much flexibility in where and how they spend their federal dollars, meaning that new accountability requirements would not be accompanied by freedom from regulations and formulas.


The Bush education team, meanwhile, is talented but tiny -- Education Department staffing is molasses-like -- and includes few Washington veterans. Perhaps that's why they often seem to be operating within the political norms of Texas, where bipartisanship means quietly cutting deals among people with similar values. If those rules applied along the Potomac, Bush would get at least his tests, while Miller and Kennedy would get more money for favored programs.


In that case, everyone would trek to the White House for a gala bill signing and solemnly proclaim a great victory for children and teachers. But this isn't likely to happen in today's Washington, especially in the fractious field of education. In any case, it wouldn't be much of a win for children. Testing is essential, and the Bush version is fine, but in the end it simply provides more thermometers by which to know how the patient is doing. If we want him actually to get well, something must force change upon the system that is failing him. Democrats ordinarily put their trust in federal regulations and top-down interventions. Republicans usually choose to open up the marketplace and put parents in control. The third option is to trust states to innovate while holding them to account for academic results. Today, however, none of these approaches commands strong support at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, and it's possible none will actually come to pass.


Congress will surely enact something this year -- the centerpiece Elementary and Secondary Education Act is overdue for renewal -- and will inevitably vote more dollars for school aid. Before opening any champagne bottles, however, we'd be well advised to see if this year's legislation changes anything important. Placing a weakened testing scheme atop the same old programs doesn't do much. Half a thermometer can't even show a fever. And a patient as sick as American education needs a radical treatment plan, not just a new diagnosis.




A former assistant secretary of education, Chester E. Finn Jr. is John M. Olin fellow at the Manhattan Institute.