The Magazine

Leaving Education Reform Behind

Bush will sign the bill. But there's not much good left in it.

Jan 14, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 17 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR.
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IN HIS SHOWCASE political event of the week, President George W. Bush will finally get to sign the "No Child Left Behind Act," his cherished education bill, which cleared Congress in December. It is already being described as a revolution in federal education policy, a triumph of bipartisanship and good sense that promises to fix what ails American schools, teachers, and students.

The reality, alas, is far more modest. The bill contains some useful small reforms in this vast and troubled realm, and one provision with the potential to make a sizable difference: the requirement that states test all their children in math and science every year in grades three through eight.

That's about all that remains of President Bush's once-ambitious plan to overhaul LBJ-era education programs. Early on, the White House said it would accept only a bipartisan bill, thus giving a veto over its contents to Democrats Ted Kennedy in the Senate and George Miller in the House. They seized the opportunity, throttling the president's other two key ideas--choice for parents and flexibility for states--and boosting the education budget by billions. The one major issue on which they (and their new colleague Jim Jeffords) failed to prevail was an ill-conceived effort to turn the federal "special education" program for disabled youngsters into a pricey off-budget entitlement.

The resulting measure is, therefore, a welcome improvement on current law but no revolution. Still, it's a political win for Bush, one of the most important domestic accomplishments of his first year, a boost to the GOP's quest to become "the education party," and, if energetically implemented, an opportunity to elevate the achievement of American students, especially the poorest among them.

Once the popping flashbulbs and bipartisan hugs cease and the policy (and media) focus shifts back to terrorism and the economy, the education world will turn to the quiet but crucial matter of translating into schoolhouse practice the dozens of programs and hundreds of provisions in this thousand-page bill. That sounds like a bureaucratic yawner, but in truth it matters quite a lot. To avoid deadlock, Senate-House conferees punted some sticky issues to the Education Department to resolve. Among them: determining what constitutes acceptable state tests; establishing criteria by which to approve a state's school accountability plan; defining "qualified" teachers; and deciding how broadly to interpret a clause that lets schools avoid sanctions if their students make lesser gains than those required under the bill's "adequate yearly progress" provision. With such weighty matters come many smaller issues, and their handling will determine what effect this legislation actually has in millions of separate classrooms.

History offers no grounds for optimism that this will be done quickly or well. Congress habitually builds such long timelines into these measures that the most important changes need not even be made until someone else's term in office. (States have five years, for example, to comply with the new testing requirement.) The last time around, Bill Clinton's Education Department dawdled so long in implementing the 1994 education amendments that today--seven years later--most states still don't comply with some of their core provisions.

Such matters are traditionally entrusted to change-averse civil servants overseen by inexperienced political appointees, who are watched closely by their masters lest they offend key governors or congressmen or make it harder for the president's party in upcoming elections. Implementation thus becomes the stuff of interminable meetings, countless forms, endless delays, and multiple extensions and waivers, while very little changes in the classroom.

This fate could befall "No Child Left Behind." But Education Secretary Rod Paige and his team are gearing up for a different approach. Indeed, they see this as their real debut--the White House staff having tightly controlled the legislative phase. Paige is quiet and self-effacing, but his strong will and administrative acumen made a big difference in Houston's sprawling school system, where he excelled at distinguishing areas where schools should be free to innovate from those requiring close central monitoring. If he and his lieutenants at the Education Department approach states in a similar vein, they could reverse the dysfunctional tendency of federal education officials to meddle in all the small stuff while paying scant attention to the big issues, such as whether children are learning and rich-poor gaps are narrowing.

Congress did not make things easy for Paige when it insisted on retaining many micro-mandates concerning where and how states and school systems must spend federal dollars. But he and his team still have some leeway in program implementation to do things right--and a fresh chance to create a more open channel between top federal officials and governors, legislators, and other key state leaders. Unless that channel stays active--and much sunlight falls on what everyone is actually doing in Washington, the states, and the districts--the modest promise of "No Child Left Behind" will not be kept.

All this, however, is just the first act of a three-act education drama. After a brief intermission, the Bush administration and Congress must turn to "special" education--the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)--which, after 25 years, urgently needs top-to-bottom rethinking. (Fortunately, Rep. John Boehner and the House of Representatives spurned the Kennedy-Jeffords-Miller plan to "fully fund" the current program, which would have killed any hope of reforming it.)

Though the loudest complaint about IDEA is how much it costs states and communities to comply with its elaborate red tape, the real problem is that it ill-serves millions of kids. Cast in the civil-rights mode of the mid-1970s, it focuses on services and procedures rather than whether children are learning anything. It's an educational cul-de-sac from which few ever escape, especially minority youngsters. It keeps growing--some 12 percent of all students are now covered--as every sort of teaching-and-learning failure gets transformed into a "disability." It neglects the early identification and correction of reading problems, which are the usual symptoms of "learning disabilities," many of which are better termed "teaching disabilities." And it creates vexing double standards, particularly with respect to discipline, whereby special ed youngsters are exempted from school rules that others must obey.

The White House has appointed a blue-ribbon commission, chaired by former Iowa governor Terry Branstad, to sort through all this and make recommendations, and recruited a reform-minded New Mexican named Bob Pasternack to head this section of the Department of Education. There's no dearth of ideas for bold changes, such as "voucherizing" special ed, as Florida has already done. But politics works against any serious reform of this domain. Elected officials are wary of its swarming lobbyists, all claiming to be tending to America's neediest children even as they advance the interests of sundry "experts." States and communities would settle for simple fiscal relief. And a number of top federal policymakers have disabled kids or grandchildren whose private school tuitions are now being paid by this program--thanks to a tantalizing parent-choice provision that today benefits mainly the upper middle class--and are wary of rocking the boat.

Act three of this drama involves higher education, whose massive federal subsidy programs come up for renewal two years hence. These, too, still operate as they did in the '60s and '70s, focusing almost entirely on "access" and "equality" and paying no attention to whether anybody is learning anything in college, much less learning anything important.

As with special ed, the policy challenge is to bring the "No Child Left Behind" mindset--with its emphasis on academic achievement and institutional accountability for student learning--to bear on America's sprawling higher education system. The federal role here, too, should shift from an obsession with inputs and services to a focus on results. But the politics of higher education also thwarts fundamental reform, and the status quo is buttressed by the widespread and carefully nurtured illusion that U.S. colleges are doing fine just as they are.

Plenty of other education challenges will punctuate the play's intermissions, including such low-profile but consequential matters as Washington's handling of education research and statistics. As with special ed and higher ed, these would benefit from the impatient, results-minded focus that George W. Bush urged a year ago when he launched the education bill he's about to sign. In the best of all possible worlds, this would turn out to be Bush's true education legacy: establishing in Washington the view that what matters in a federal program is not what rules are followed, what services are provided, or what money is spent where, but whether young people are actually learning what they should. This may be too much to expect. But what's a new year if not a time for optimistic resolutions?

Chester E. Finn Jr. is John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.