Federalize the Schools!

In praise of Clinton’s State of the Union power grab.

Let’s give President Clinton credit for attempting, in this darkest hour of his presidency, to revive a worthwhile if unpopular idea: stronger federal control over the nation’s public schools.

Clinton’s State of the Union proposal to semi-privatize Social Security may be getting most of the press, but his plan to penalize states with the loss of federal education dollars if they fail to enforce strict academic standards was by far the most interesting policy initiative unveiled in his Tuesday speech. If Clinton sticks to his rhetorical guns (and hangs onto his job), it could become one of the most important initiatives of his presidency. If he doesn’t, or if the bill fails to clear a Congress that’s sure to be hostile to it, it will rank with the health care bill as one of the more significant policy disappointments of his presidency.

The proposal reaches the table at a time when education reform has all but disappeared from the national political agenda. Remember education reform? Back in 1983, a blue-ribbon panel on elementary and high-school education declared “the nation at risk,” and in response states legislated reforms such as merit pay to boost teacher performance. The cry for better public schools reached a crescendo in 1989, when George Bush, the “education president,” convened an education summit in Charlottesville, Va., which defined national education goals to be reached by the Year 2000. Clinton, one of the more reform-minded governors at the Charlottesville conference, tried to establish national standards to help achieve the Charlottesville goals when he became president. A Clinton-authored grant program inspired by the conference did become law in 1994. But the standard-setting portion was watered down by congressional Republicans who perceived it as a liberal plot to create a national board of education, and by some congressional Democrats who saw tougher school standards as a threat to the self-esteem of black and Hispanic students. It was all but gutted after Republicans took over Congress in 1995. (A special place in hell should be reserved for perpetual Republican presidential candidate Lamar Alexander, who as education secretary during the Bush administration promoted national standards only to oppose them when they were put forth by a Democratic White House.)

Over the past few years, education has receded as a subject of national concern. A large part of the impetus behind the education reform movement had been panic over U.S. competitiveness in the international economy. Today, of course, the U.S. position in the world economy is very strong. MIT economist Lester Thurow recently observed in the New York Times that as recently as 1990 the United States had only one of the world’s 10 most valuable companies. Last year, it had nine. Unfortunately, the resurgence of U.S. economic dominance (much of which has less to do with American might than with financial turmoil in Asia) was not accompanied by much improvement in the performance of U.S. schools. Education Week recently pronounced the chances were “practically nil” that the 1989 Charlottesville goals would be met by the target year of 2000. An accompanying chart shows that 30 percent of fourth- and eighth-graders met the goals panel’s performance standard in reading in 1996, only one statistically insignificant percentage point greater than in 1992; for 12th-graders, the 36 percent who met the performance standard was four percentage points less than in 1992. Math achievement did show significant improvement, especially for fourth- and eighth-graders, but three-quarters of the fourth-, eighth-, and 12th-graders surveyed continued not to meet the goals panel’s math performance standard. High-school seniors were bested by 14 out of 20 surveyed countries on math achievement, and by 11 out of 20 on science achievement.

The outlines of Clinton’s education proposal are still a bit vague. They will be sketched in later this year, when the White House drafts reauthorization language for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. But at least as conceived at the moment, the plan is to empower the federal government to withhold funds to state education administrators–roughly 1 percent to 2 percent of the $11 billion that the federal government spends annually on public elementary, junior high, and high schools through this law–if the state’s schools are not taking steps to end certain harmful practices. (If the feds got really mad, they could also withhold the actual funds that go to schools, although that is an unlikely “last resort,” according to Gerald Tirozzi, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.) Among these practices are “social promotion,” whereby unqualified students are kicked up to the next grade level; persistent low academic performance; poor discipline; and the assignment of teachers to subjects for which they are unqualified. (This last, aimed mainly at eliminating the issuing of “emergency” teaching certificates, appears to be a concession to the teachers’ unions, but it will be accompanied by stricter requirements for testing new teachers.) The plan also requires schools to issue, in addition to report cards on individual students’ performance, report cards on the school’s overall academic performance.

Howls of protest about the plan’s usurpation of local prerogatives have already begun. Chester Finn, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, who formerly worked in Ronald Reagan’s Department of Education, and who is sympathetic to many of Clinton’s goals, insists, “The states are the constitutional authorities in education.” Such complaints already seem to have cowed the Clinton administration. At a reporters briefing on the plan earlier this week, White House Domestic Policy Council Director Bruce Reed said, “I think the headline writer for the New York Times got it wrong–we’re not for U.S. control, we’re for state and local control.” Actually, the Times headline, one hopes, got it right: “Clinton To Urge More U.S. Control on Aid to Schools.” Given that the aid in question comes from the federal government to begin with–and, when combined with about $9 billion in additional federal spending, accounts for about 6 percent of all money spent on public education from kindergarten through 12th grade–doesn’t the federal government have a responsibility to make sure the money is well spent? Any state bent on keeping its “constitutional authority” unmolested is always free to buy back its sovereignty by refusing federal education aid.

In fact, the whole notion that education should be purely a local concern has long reflected Jeffersonian nostalgia more than it has reality. As Nicholas Lemann observed in the November Atlantic Monthly, American public schools are “rhetorically committed to decentralization” but in fact are “centralized in a patchwork, undeliberate way. We have national standardized tests, national teachers’ unions, national textbook publishers, and national laws, regulations, and funding programs for schools.” And also, he might well have pointed out, a national economy: Jobs are not parceled out equally according to school districts. A child being educated in Mississippi needs to be educated sufficiently to allow him to prosper in Ohio, New Jersey, or wherever his future employment may be. Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which has lent its support to Clinton’s plan, says, “There has been too great a difference between school districts and states.”

Will Clinton’s plan be radical enough to have much effect? As Finn rightly points out, a similar but narrower penalty provision in the 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act has never been used; although some states have received warnings, none has lost funds, as is permitted under the law. There’s some real danger that cosmetic reforms at the state level–more programs, no results–will be enough to stave off penalties under the new law. Like most major education reforms in recent years, this one eschews testing of teachers who are already on the job as the price for union support of testing for new teachers. Finn may be right when he argues that “to say we’re only going to deal with the new ones is to say we’ll solve the problem 20 years from now.” (Feldman counters that two-thirds of the nation’s 3 million teachers will be retiring during the next decade.) Another cause for disappointment is that the Clinton plan will not impose a national curriculum, which, regrettably, remains beyond the pale in any practical discussion about education reform because of the ongoing culture wars among Christian fundamentalists, mainstream educators, and multicultural leftists.

Still, bully for Clinton’s Hail Mary pass, if that’s what he intends it to be. As a lame-duck president who’ll count himself lucky to inhabit the Oval Office for two more years, this is no time to play it safe.