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Think Portability, Not Vouchers

The key federal education reform would fund students, not schools

11:00 PM, Jan 21, 2001 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
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PRESIDENT BUSH has pledged to send his first education bill to Capitol Hill within hours of his inauguration, a symbol of the priority he assigns to the issue that garnered so much campaign attention and looms so large in his Texas record of accomplishment.

This will kick off the busiest two years of education policy-making in Washington since Lyndon Johnson's day. Even if the White House were inert, the 107th Congress would have its hands full with reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act -- on which the previous Congress made good headway but eventually gave up -- and the tangle of federal education research, statistics, and assessment programs. In 2002, the big "special education" program for disabled children also comes due for renewal.

Despite the whopping spending increases that Clinton and Congress lavished on education programs of every description, none of them is working well. It's past time to shift from an archaic focus on how and where the money is spent to an emphasis on whether children are actually learning. It's past time to move from a "compliance" model (in which states and communities merely show that they're following Washington's rules) to a "tight-loose" strategy that frees states and schools to do what they think best so long as they produce student-achievement gains. It's past time to switch from funding school systems to aiding needy kids.

Such changes would bring federal education policy into the modern era, would harmonize it with promising state-level reforms, and would alter Washington's role from troublemaker to partner. But of course that's easier said than done. The teacher unions, school boards, old-line civil rights organizations, and other potent interest groups cling doggedly to the Great Society-era status quo. So do most of the editorial writers. Though governors claim to want more control over federal education dollars, up to now they've shunned the heavy political lifting. And congressional Democrats are understandably wary of ceding any of the education territory to Republicans.

Striding into this briar patch is the most serious "education president" since LBJ. During the campaign, Bush painted a sweeping reform vision (before succumbing to Clinton-Gore-style programmitis). In Rod Paige, he's picked an able reformer for education secretary. He's installed a trusted Austin education staffer as chief domestic strategist at the White House. And he rounded up all the available GOP education talent to help with the transition.

It's a moment of great potential and high drama. As the play unfolds, watch for three signals:

First, how does the Bush team handle "accountability"? Everyone agrees that states and schools must show improved academic results, but how to cajole or coerce this from the banks of the Potomac? The Texans seem to think they can extend Lone Star-style reform to the entire country. But that strategy is top-down and centrally controlled, dependent on three forms of leverage that Washington currently lacks: explicit academic standards; annual tests of student performance; and consequences for kids and schools based on how they perform on those tests.

It's a formula that's worked well in Texas and some other states. But can it be imposed from Washington? Don't count on it.

After a miserable experience with national standards during the first Bush administration, Congress isn't going there again. Which means states will continue to set their own standards. But many of those are vague and touchy-feely. Will Bush and Paige second-guess the states? The Clintonites lacked the will -- and congressional backing -- to do so.

As for tests, nearly every state has lots of them, but they can't be compared with each other and they don't always tell the truth. Clinton proposed a "voluntary national test" but that idea was shot down from the left and right. (The principal Senate marksman was attorney general-designate John Ashcroft.) And if the White House tries to convert the existing National Assessment into a high-stakes test, it will corrupt our surest indicator of how U.S. students are doing.

Even if the standards and testing parts could be worked out, what would Uncle Sam use for rewards and sanctions? Congress has never wanted to grant or withhold education dollars on the basis of academic performance, a practice that is said to enrich schools that are already succeeding while weakening those in greatest need.