ANY DAY NOW, OUR "EDUCATION PRESIDENT" will strangle another newborn education program in its crib.

The last victim was a small voucher program that would have helped 2,000 impoverished residents of the District of Columbia flee the capital's rotten public-education system for the haven of safe, effective private and parochial schools -- just as the Clinton and Gore children have done. "We must strengthen the public schools, not abandon them," thundered the veto message from the Oval Office. The cynical subtext, however, was, "Do as we say, not as we do."

Days later, the Washington Post reported the results of its own survey: Fifty-six percent of D.C. residents -- including three-fifths of blacks and two-thirds of public-school parents -- favor the kind of program that the president killed. But such data cut little ice at the White House. Sure, Bill Clinton often panders, and nowhere more blatantly than in education -- witness his promotion of smaller classes and "universal" college attendance. But when it comes to placing K-12 dollars in parents' hands, even the will of the people cannot save programs that rile Bill Clinton's establishment friends.

The next candidate for execution is the measure known in Beltway argot as the Coverdell bill, after the Georgia senator who introduced it. Currently making its way through a Senate-House conference committee, this bill has become an ornate assemblage of programs and prohibitions and is meant by its backers to embody the Republican national agenda for K-12 education. Several key provisions have elicited veto threats from the White House, and the GOP leadership is weighing various parliamentary tactics to make the bill as awkward as possible for the president to kill. (One rumor has Ways and Means chairman Bill Archer tacking it to the hard-to-veto IRS-reform bill.)

At its core is Coverdell's proposal to expand tax-sheltered education savings accounts (a form of IRA) and -- here's the hot button -- allow them to be used not only for higher education but also for K-12 expenses, including private-school tuition.

Opponents charge that the actual benefit would amount to just a few dollars per household and that little of it would accrue to poor families, who pay little in taxes in the first place. But those are debating points. What's really at issue is a crucial precedent: whether so much as a dime of federal education aid will be entrusted -- even indirectly, via the tax code -- to parents rather than public-school systems. For if families can handle a dime, why not a dollar? And if a dollar, then how about the $ 15 billion or so that Congress will be steering when it takes up the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) next year? Barring a November upset, this will be the first time a GOP majority on Capitol Hill has had the chance to shape that huge mass of programs and outlays. For U.S. education policy, the stakes could not be higher. This year's action is an important preview.

Today, as has been true since Lyndon Johnson's time, all federal K-12 dollars sluice directly into state and local public-school coffers. This is a vast subsidy reserved for education's government-sector producers, completely out of reach of consumers and private-sector competitors. And that, of course, is precisely what suits the teacher unions and the rest of the public-school establishment -- Clinton backers all.

But it is not the only possible way of doing things. It's worth recalling that, just a quarter-century ago, a Democratic Congress and Republican White House agreed to a very different strategy for higher education. An epic debate had raged over whether Uncle Sam should aid institutions or students. The colleges naturally wanted all the money to come directly to them. And they still get sizable sums. But by 1972 it was settled that grants and loans directly to students would thenceforth be the main channel for federal assistance -- and recipients were free to carry those dollars to the institutions of their choice, public, private, proprietary, religious, whatever. Higher-education policy would be driven by consumers rather than producers.

This has not worked perfectly, to be sure. But it has fostered the world's best-regarded higher-education system, a lively marketplace of competing providers, and choosy consumers with plenty of decent options.

Elementary and secondary education, by contrast, remains in the iron grip of a government monopoly propped up by billions of federal dollars. The producers are totally in charge. The consumers (unless rich or lucky) must take what they are given. In terms of quality, this system falls near the bottom on most international rankings (except for spending levels).

Can this be changed? That's the real issue posed by Coverdell's bill. While the bill wouldn't give much aid to any family, it would mark the first time that Uncle Sam had entrusted even a pittance to the K-12 consumer -- as bold a departure for education as private-investment accounts would be for Social Security. That's the precedent that Republicans are keen to establish via Coverdell. (The dead D.C. voucher program embodied the same principle.) And that, of course, is precisely what President Clinton and his allies have vowed to block.

The ESEA reauthorization isn't all that lies ahead. The 1998 and 2000 elections are in sight, and both parties are positioning themselves on the education issue, which has risen to the top of many voters' concerns. At heart, the Democrats remain the party of the public-school monopoly, though they are shrewdly advertising such customer-friendly specials as more teachers, smaller classes, and new classrooms. The GOP isn't nearly so deft -- and polls show most voters have greater faith in the Democrats' handling of education. Nevertheless, the Republican party is seeking to establish itself as the ally of education's millions of consumers. Both sides claim to be interested in quality and in better teachers, and they sometimes converge in support of innovations such as charter schools (a cross between public education and the free market). But their core difference in philosophy and strategy is more conspicuous today than every before.

That difference was on display when the Senate debated the Coverdell bill. Dozens of amendments were offered. The Democrats strove to insert subsidies for school construction and additional teachers. These were rebuffed by the GOP majority, which managed to add a dozen riders of its own. Many were sound: permission for single-sex schools to receive federal aid, a phonics-based literacy program, a resolution that 95 percent of Uncle Sam's money should reach the classroom, and so on. One of the riders -- Slade Gorton's conversion of most current federal programs into an optional "block grant" for states and communities -- is almost as scary to the education establishment as Coverdell's core proposal. (If it survives the conference, it's veto bait, too.)

The Senate blundered, though, when it assented to an amendment by John Ashcroft to ban further development of national tests. After a huge fracas last year, responsibility for shaping voluntary, standards-based tests of 4th-grade reading and 8th-grade math was turned over to the National Assessment Governing Board, which has been quietly and carefully vetting test questions to make sure they're solid. The next step is to "field test" those items to see what happens when children confront them. (Not all test questions "work.") That's what Ashcroft mustered a majority of his colleagues to forbid -- as did the House of Representatives earlier in the year.

Though the current plan for national testing sprang from the Clinton White House, the concept of standards-based national tests goes back to the Bush administration, and Republican politicians should realize that it remains vital to the GOP strategy for reform. No consumer-based system works well unless the consumers have reliable information about how the competing producers are doing. In education, that mostly means test scores, child by child and school by school, tied to high standards that signal what well-educated youngsters should know.

Practically nobody wants federal officials themselves to set those standards and interpret those scores. But practically everyone who has thought seriously about how to reconstruct American education has figured out that some authoritative body must do this. To block such information, as a majority of congressional Republicans voted to do, is to play into the hands of the school establishment -- and continue to deny consumers effective power.

Standards and testing remain GOP blind spots, but the rest of the Coverdell bill is solid. It will, however, almost certainly be vetoed by a president again declaring his fealty to "public education." Republicans lack the votes to override the veto, which means that federal K-12 dollars will continue flowing exclusively to producers. The stage will be set for a clash in the coming elections -- as well as in the year to follow, when Congress turns to programs that dispense serious money.

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

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