THE NEW YORK TIMES'S lead education reporter seemed surprised by his own discovery: Hiring more teachers for U.S. schools is harder than it sounds. In New York City this year, seven-eighths of those teachers hired with Washington's help have been doubled up in classrooms with other teachers. There was nowhere else to put them (and the city had to spend part of its windfall to show them how to team-teach). Moreover, just half are certified in their subjects. In tiny Raymondville, Missouri, on the other hand, there's plenty of classroom space but the federal aid formula yielded barely $ 7,000 for the whole school system, enough to hire just one part-time classroom aide.

School officials in both communities welcomed the extra cash, of course, but as their experience showed the Times reporter, "It takes more than money to put an effective teacher in front of a classroom."

That's what makes Congress's capitulation to the White House on the fractious class-size-reduction program so pathetic. Just as Republicans are starting to wrap their minds around a coherent strategy for overhauling federal education aid, Clinton roars back with a politically shrewd, Great Society program that wastes money, ignores most of the research, shoves states and communities around, focuses on what goes into schools rather than what comes out, creates manifold new problems, and fails to accomplish anything important for children. Yet for the second year in a row, Congress caves. Once is a mistake. Twice is fecklessness.

That pretty much describes the first half of the 106th Congress when it comes to education. Lyndon Johnson might as well still be in charge. Big, categorical, Washington-knows-best programs remain the order of the day. Education Department enforcers ride high. State reform schemes and local priorities are undermined. And Clinton runs political circles around Capitol Hill. No wonder surveys find voters more inclined to trust Democrats with the education issue.

Though the new teachers program got most of the ink, the year's premier blunder was the House's renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. This was the first time a Republican majority has ever had a chance to recast the centerpiece of Washington's role in K-12 schooling, and, mostly, they blew it.

Take the so-called Student Results Act, which Education Committee chairman Bill Goodling described as "the largest component of [the GOP] strategy this Congress to improve elementary and secondary education." It doesn't even deal with the whole of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, mainly just the $ 8 billion Title I program for disadvantaged youngsters. Here, the House embraced the core Clinton strategy: Since Title I, by common consent, hasn't worked these past 35 years, tighten the regulatory screws. And it rejected the only serious idea for overhauling the program: Strap federal money to the backs of low-income youngsters and let them take it to the schools of their choice. Dubbed "portability," this would have transformed the federal role from one of subsidizing school bureaucracies to one of directly aiding needy children. Instead of ever weightier regulation, it would have introduced accountability via the marketplace.

Yet portability was voted down in committee, and two separate versions were clobbered on the floor. Although the Student Results Act purports to allow children trapped in low-performing schools to exit to other (public) schools, their federal aid dollars stay in the failing schools.

One beam of light, however, shone through the gloom. A few hours after wimping out on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the House narrowly passed the "Straight A's" bill, which treats participating states and cities like giant charter schools, offering them sweeping freedom to spend federal dollars as they see fit in exchange for palpable gains in pupil achievement. Should this measure make it through the Senate and survive a White House veto threat, it would herald a new chapter in U.S. education policy.

Yet Straight A's was bobtailed during the first stage of its legislative journey, turned into a pilot program for no more than 10 states, and shackled by a "hold harmless" provision that assures districts as much money as they would get from the Title I program absent Straight A's. These concessions bought only a couple of Democratic votes and no White House support. They were made to keep skittish Republicans on board. The prospect of actually altering the ground rules of federal education policy gives palpitations to GOP "moderates."

To be fair, Republicans were not exactly overwhelmed by home-state clamor for change. While the Education Leaders Council, a group of dissident education officials such as Arizona's Lisa Graham Keegan, pushed hard for Straight A's, and individual governors wrote in support of it, the Council of Chief State School Officers was bitterly opposed. And the National Governors' Association, reportedly deferring to North Carolina's Jim Hunt, said it could only support Straight A's if Title I were excluded. The problem is that program accounts for two-thirds of the money. No sane state will take the sizable risk of Straight A's -- committing to stronger achievement for poor and minority kids -- if the National Governors' Association prevails. Straight A's without Title I is Thanksgiving without the turkey.

Why do state and local officials cling to old-line categorical programs rather than welcome the freedom to make decisions for themselves? Some say they don't trust Washington to maintain funding for block grants and other nebulous categories that lack specific constituencies. The deeper explanation is that they've succumbed to the Stockholm Syndrome, the peculiar bond that develops between captor and captive, between terrorist and hostage. They've been locked up for so long by the public school establishment that they've begun to see their jailers' interests as their own.

Congressional Republicans display a touch of the Stockholm Syndrome, too. Their longtime captors -- Democrats in general, the Clinton administration in particular, the teachers' unions, and other elements of what Bill Bennett calls "the education blob" -- have them brainwashed and cowering. Republicans have repeatedly pumped extra billions into dubious Education Department programs -- billions more than even the White House has sought. Another symptom was the House's decision to keep the Women's Educational Equity Act.

This tiny program purports to combat school-based discrimination against girls. In reality, it funds left-wing groups to continue harping on alleged injustices that have been resoundingly disproved by such scholars as Diane Ravitch and Judith Kleinfeld. During the renewal process for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the education committee proposed to scrap this bit of federally funded agitprop. But a predictable uproar ensued, and when it was hinted that Republicans were being unkind to girls and women, the leadership crumpled. The House reversed its committee. The Women's Educational Equity Act endures. The terrorists remain in control.

Prior to their autumn collapse, House Republicans were showing signs of emerging from captivity. After all, they advanced some good ideas. Straight A's still represents a major policy innovation that is miles ahead of the slash-and-burn approach of 1995 and fully compatible with the muscular-yet-flexible stance urged by George W. Bush in his recent trio of education speeches. Likewise, portability has the potential to take the principle of school choice, which enjoys ever wider public support, and apply it to federal K-12 programs without losing their focus on needy kids. Both ideas promote accountability combined with freedom, the double-barrelled school reform strategy that is making such promising head-way in states and communities. Taken together, they contain a coherent alternative to 35 years of failed big government programs, one that would resonate with voters while triggering needed change in their children's schools. They are the exact opposite of things like Clinton's class-size-reduction scheme, the Women's Educational Equity Act, and the hyper-regulatory approach to Title I.

But the House's weakened version of Straight A's (and the even weaker "Ed-Flex" measure a few months earlier) was as far as the 106th Congress could get in escaping from its captors. Next year is the Senate's turn. The early signals are not encouraging. Important reforms -- Straight A's, portability, and more -- can be found in bills written by Slade Gorton, Judd Gregg, Bill Frist, and Tim Hutchinson, as well as Joe Lieberman across the aisle.

But Education Committee chairman Jim Jeffords, working behind closed doors with ranking Democrat Ted Kennedy, has drafted a Stockholm-style measure that makes the House look daring. It basically leaves the Elementary and Secondary Education Act intact and adds a whopping new early-childhood education program. If the Senate heads down that road, serious reformers might prefer legislative gridlock until a real education president can take the wheel. But the GOP will have squandered one of its best opportunities to repair American education and to retain control of Congress.

Chester E. Finn Jr. is John M. Olin fellow at the Manhattan Institute, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and co-author of The Educated Child: A Parent's Guide from Preschool through Eighth Grade.

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