CAN CONGRESS do for education in 2000 what it did for welfare in 1996? We'll know a lot more this week.

Welfare reform not only ceded to the states quite a lot of operational control over a federal program, it also established strong principles and benchmarks for accountability. And it seems to be accomplishing its purpose. Millions of onetime welfare recipients are now working, and what was once a tragically counterproductive program is beginning to succeed.

Welfare reform was enacted in the teeth of resistance from most Beltway interest groups -- including, notably, the National Governors' Association (NGA). Even though individual governors had launched the state-level experiments that showed the way, their collective lobbying arm tried to block a sweeping national reform. The NGA, of course, is a staff-run outfit whose leader changes every year, alternating parties. It is not only bipartisan, but programmed to cater to its members' lowest common denominator. It was "a major obstacle throughout" the struggle to revamp welfare, says reform guru Robert Rector. It opposed work requirements and, "at critical junctures, . . . actually worked against devolution of authority to the states." Today, the same dynamic is impeding education reform.

The great national challenge in K-12 schooling is to boost the academic achievement of poor children, and the 35-year-old federal program intended to do this has been a costly debacle. As with welfare, it's time to try intelligent devolution with accountability. Washington should allow states to behave like giant charter schools, freeing them to spend their federal dollars as they judge best, in return for demonstrated gains in student learning. Fifteen governors, seven state school superintendents, and a number of congressional Republicans are supporting a plan to accomplish this, known on Capitol Hill as "Straight A's." The House of Representatives actually passed a 10-state pilot version of Straight A's in October.

But the NGA doesn't like it. In the name of compromise and consensus, the governors' association is promoting a watered-down alternative that fails to offer states either real freedom or clear rules of accountability -- call it "Straight C's" (craven, conventional, cumbersome). Criticized by true leaders in education reform, like Florida governor Jeb Bush and Virginia's James Gilmore, as well as Arizona's crusading superintendent of public instruction, Lisa Graham Keegan, the NGA plan would increase the authority of the secretary of education to tell governors what to do -- exactly what Straight A's is meant to reverse.

We are encouraged by reports that Senate education committee Republicans will offer a pilot Straight A's amendment this week as they prepare to debate the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). But even if they succeed in passing their amendment, the bill itself, as fashioned by chairman James Jeffords, remains pervasively influenced by the NGA's tepid, salami-slicing approach to "reform."

What makes this especially deplorable is that in this election year, the voters say they care mightily about schools -- but still trust the Democrats more. For the first time, a Republican Congress is in charge of the major federal education programs. This is its chance to prove Republicans can fix them.

Unfortunately, education policy-making has never come naturally to Republicans in Washington. Ever since Lyndon Johnson rammed ESEA through Congress in 1965, Democrats have championed and expanded it -- to the point where it now incorporates some 60 federal programs, at an annual cost of $ 13.8 billion. But ESEA hasn't worked as intended. Historian Maris Vinovskis of the University of Michigan notes that, after spending "more than $ 150 billion on . . . compensatory education services, we still do not know which practices and programs are particularly effective." Johnson's dream of closing the achievement gap between rich and poor remains a proper national goal, but the programs he devised seem unable to attain it.

In the present legislative cycle, Republicans should break decisively with that history. Unlike the old GOP block grants, which empowered states but did nothing by way of accountability, Straight A's promotes state autonomy while demanding results in return for federal money, much as welfare reform does. And Straight A's forces nothing on states. As in the early days of welfare reform, the basic structure of federal education programs would remain intact, but governors could enter into contractual agreements with the federal government, promising to boost the academic achievement of their students, especially low-income students, in exchange for freedom from red tape.

Instead of embracing Straight A's, however, Republican senators are prepared to give it a peck on the cheek while hugging Straight C's to their bosoms. A gaggle of GOP moderates and education committee aides apparently haven't noticed that the NGA is killing a terrific opportunity to make a change that the country needs. Neither they nor the governors -- 30 of whom are Republicans -- seem to see that the NGA is the wrong group to put in charge of the education agenda. It consists of Beltway insiders who intend to "get along" and so remain where they are for years to come. That's precisely the attitude that has made people sick of Washington -- and that emboldened governors to launch their education reforms in the first place.

Everyone we asked to explain the mysterious appeal of Straight C's agreed on the answer: It's bipartisan. But bipartisanship is curious. It seems to become a virtue in Washington only when Republicans would otherwise do things their way. Nowhere is this clearer than in education policy, where the GOP was marginalized for three decades. The current NGA infatuation with bipartisanship in federal policy is a criterion that would stop many of its members dead in their tracks when it comes to reforming education in their own states. Why is bipartisanship something the Senate leadership now covets? Did consensus produce the bold experiments that led to welfare reform?

As long as no one can show that Washington's approach to education is bringing improvements, Uncle Sam should be humble, experimental, and encouraging of states that yearn to try something different -- on condition that they produce results. Straight A's would do for education what reform did for welfare. It would be nice if its appeal were bipartisan, but that is no litmus test for sound policy -- and it certainly isn't good politics for Republicans.

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