Whatever the 105th Congress accomplished in other fields, in education it muddied everything it touched. The session ended with a debacle on national testing, confusion on charter schools, and utter failure on school choice. The prospects for reforming American education would be brighter if House and Senate had never gone near the subject.

Granted, any gains would have been hard won on school choice, given Bill Clinton's implacable hostility. The same is true for block grants. But charter schools and testing are another story. Here, Congress created its own messes or made the president's worse. When it took up the fiscal '98 budget, it lavished money on useless and harmful programs, often appropriating more than the administration sought. Education for the disabled, for example -- a misguided and out-of-control program that even teachers say is a dead end for most kids who fall into it -- wound up with its biggest budget increase ever.

It's now abundantly clear that, while repairing education is at the top of the public's agenda, the Republicans are no better suited than the Democrats to tackle it in Washington. Every time they try, they make matters worse. In the states, by contrast, many GOP governors (and some Democrats) are forging ahead with important reforms, as are anti-establishment education commissioners in Florida, Arizona, Georgia, and elsewhere.

The conclusion seems obvious: Overhaul the entire federal role in education -- a great project, for which neither party or branch of government appears to have the stomach -- or put education back where the Tenth Amendment placed it, squarely in the hands of the states and of the people.

National standards, combined with national testing, were once a Republican idea, but this go-around it got started at the White House. As always, it proved hugely controversial. To make matters worse, the administration tried to proceed without congressional assent -- and the Education Department bungled the project so spectacularly that even pro-testing conservatives had to wonder whether useful tests could possibly result.

A Republican Congress should have responded by setting the program right. After all, neither of the top priorities of serious reformers -- choice for families and accountability for schools -- can make headway without solid, standards-based measurements of student and school performance. Such measurements should be gathered for the whole country, in a manner that permits both domestic and international comparisons. Today, these data are lacking.

The Senate tried to clean up the mess and restart the standards-and-testing project under an independent board. But a peculiar coalition -- linking Left, Right, and establishment -- formed in the House to halt the idea in its tracks. Then some senators got cold feet; others decided the issue was ideal for political grandstanding. The White House, as usual, threatened vetoes, which would have shut down three cabinet agencies. Congressional leaders sought compromise, and Clinton, needing GOP support for "fast track" legislation, agreed to bargain. But no senator joined the negotiations, and the program as finally revised by House opponents and White House supporters is as coherent as a camel designed by a committee.

Two things will now happen. First, Clinton's reading and math tests will continue to be developed, supposedly under the aegis of the National Assessment Governing Board. This is a good group, but negotiators scrapped a Senate plan for giving it the independence and bipartisanship it needs. In reality, the secretary of education -- hence the White House -- remains in charge. Second, an absurd "study" will be undertaken by the National Academy of Sciences to see whether existing commercial tests can be calibrated to a single standard.

This is a psychometric pipe dream, but even if it weren't, "the Academy" would be the worst possible place to lodge such a project. It will spend many months and many millions. It will assemble committees of "experts" that are exquisitely balanced by race, gender, even age, but that lack any balance in their views. These panels will be packed with ed-school professors and psychologists who never met a test that was good enough to use and who don't want standards-based tests or test-based accountability in the first place. Their ponderous reports will set back efforts to impose accountability on American schools and will make it harder for parents to get usable data on their kids' achievement. Why Republicans in Congress can't see this is beyond our ken.

Charter schools are a promising reform strategy with a semblance of bipartisan support, but they can still be choked by a bearhug from Uncle Sam. Both the executive and legislative branches are doing their part to turn this wonderfully messy, entrepreneurial, grass-roots innovation into a tidy, well- regulated Washington program.

For several years, a modest pot of federal dollars has been available to offset some startup costs of charter schools. It typically yields $ 50,000 or so per school, not a large sum but welcome if you're trying to lease a building, buy computers and textbooks, and train teachers.

The White House proposed to double this program's budget. Congress, however, sought to ensure that the money would flow only to states with "strong" charter programs. That was a worthy goal -- in the past, funds had gone to states with sham programs -- but it opened Pandora's box. Half of Congress began tinkering with the charter concept. After much jaw-boning by friends of this reform strategy who understand why charter schools must be allowed to bubble up freely, the bill's sponsors eased off. Still, the measure that the House passed (the Senate has yet to act) is too prescriptive. It charges the secretary of education with ensuring, for example, that states grant charters on the basis of geographic and curricular "diversity," opening the door for mischief when the department crafts regulations, procedures, and forms. It also sets a troubling precedent: What happens when some future Congress decides to favor state programs that, say, require charter schools to honor teachers-union contracts? Why can't Congress understand that sometimes the best way to protect a fragile reform is to leave it alone?

As for the executive branch, its view of charter schools is even more troubling. The Education Department threw a big conference at a D.C. hotel the other week, attended by hundreds of energized charter people from all over the country. Splendid things were said by education secretary Dick Riley about how much the Clinton administration loves these schools and wants to help them. Yet session after session was run by lawyers and enforcers in Riley's employ who instructed charter-school operators and wannabes on the need for their schools not actually to differ from conventional schools when it comes to special education, bilingual education, and all the rest. The administration, in short, loves charter schools so long as they're just like the schools to which they are alternatives. (The department has also begun to share the federal charter money with the greediest vultures of the school establishment, the "regional education laboratories," ostensibly to advance the charter movement. This would be funny if it weren't outrageous.)

School choice was the big GOP education-reform enchilada this session, but Republicans wound up doing more harm than good. By our count, at least four different school-choice measures were introduced, some with the support of Democrats such as Joe Lieberman and Floyd Flake. All died or were put off until next year. The one that came closest to passing would have created " opportunity scholarships" for 2,000 poor children trapped in the dismal District of Columbia schools. It was cynically sacrificed.

Rather than hold hostage the annual appropriation for the D.C. government, GOP leaders huddled with President Clinton and Senator Kennedy to devise a scheme by which Congress would split off and pass the scholarship program and the president would veto it without inconvenience to anyone. (In the end, the final vote was deferred until next year.) This enables members to claim they passed a school-choice measure and the president to portray himself once again as the defender of public education. But it's all posturing. If members of Congress actually cared about the kids, they would force the issue -- maybe by cutting off the salaries of the White House staff. But they care about the kids less than they fear Clinton's skill at branding them as anti- education and anti-government.

As for the other school-choice measures, don't ask. There were press conferences and hearings, sure, but nothing real. In the end, choice was not advanced. No child benefited.

Outside the Beltway, America has a robust school-reform movement that celebrates high standards, freedom, choice, enterprise, and accountability. It is slowly shifting power from education's producers to its consumers. Daffy ideas are being sidetracked. Common-sense alternatives are getting a chance. Defenders of the old order are retreating or at least regrouping. Avatars of change are winning elections.

Why, then, is Washington so ineffectual when it comes to the most urgent item on the country's domestic agenda?

Let's give credit where it's due. President Clinton has largely maintained the education status quo while styling himself a great reformer. (Whatever he actually believes, he operates within constraints that block serious change.) He's done that by co-opting the GOP agenda, speaking deftly and often about education, and branding as "anti-education" everything Republicans try to accomplish in Washington. In reality, his administration is doing great damage to the reform movement (witness the continuing depredations of the Office for Civil Rights). But the president sounds like the head cheerleader for change rather than chief guardian of the establishment's crown jewels.

For their part, the Republicans stutter and mumble and generally seem schizophrenic about education. Their philosophy properly calls for shifting control out of Washington bureaucracies to states, communities, and parents. But the Republicans also have a bad case of "programitis," the illusion that only by manipulating federal programs can they accomplish anything good and rebut the Democrats' charge that they're cheap and uncaring. Worse, they lack courage. They're unwilling to confront Clinton on his administration's follies or the school establishment on its self-interestedness. And they haven't figured out how to explain that America's education problems would be eased if Uncle Sam made fewer decisions and parents and governors made more. (It doesn't help that the chairmen of the relevant committees in both chambers have been in harness a long time and have developed a Potomacentric view.)

We're not naive devolutionists. States often do a lousy job of setting standards. Parents lack information. Some charter programs are phony. The teachers' unions are even stronger in school-board elections than on Capitol Hill. Real change in education won't flow automatically from decentralization. Like everyone else, local school authorities benefit when someone is watching over their shoulder, auditing their performance, and using the bully pulpit to praise, blame, and exhort.

But what a hash the feds have made of it! They're lax where they should be tough-minded, regulation-crazed where they should let up. They throw money at education problems in the archaic belief that this will produce improvement. They trust the producers more than the consumers and the school establishment more than governors and mayors. They fund myriad programs that have been shown not to work. They waste a ton of money on middlemen and managers. They shackle serious reform initiatives that originate outside the Beltway. They refuse to acknowledge that everyone benefits when education's consumers can vote with their feet as well as their ballots.

Taken as a whole, Congress's attempts to enact national education policies this year were so mired in politics and pandering that the results are either irrelevant or harmful. The president has held the upper hand on this issue since he took office. But he's a prisoner of the public-school establishment and the old statist agenda.

Clinton, of course, remains in Washington, as do his education cadres. But the Congress has finished its session and disbanded. May the legislators stay home a long time, reading and fishing and talking with their constituents. When they return, let them try following three simple principles: Uncle Sam should keep out of virtually all education decisions; federal education money should flow to governors and mayors and parents; and dollars should follow kids to the schools of their choice. That's it. It's actually plenty. It would revolutionize thirty years of federal education policy -- and advance real reform.

One challenge would remain: to develop mechanisms for encouraging reform across the country without depending on the federal government. Such reform would be national, yet not federal. In Washington, that's still an oxymoron. But think about it. It's got potential.

Jeanne Allen is president of the Center for Education Reform. Chester E. Finn Jr. is John M. Olin fellow at Hudson Institute.

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