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.
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.