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As published in the Los Angeles Times, May 4, 2001
As an early supporter of President Bush's education plan, I now have deep reservations about the way this plan is being changed to win congressional approval. What began as an excellent reform strategy has been eviscerated twice--once in the name of bipartisanship and again to placate those on whose support the president should be able to rely.
The plan for education that the president first proposed centered on three principles: flexibility for states to improve their schools, so long as students learn more; increased accountability through national and state testing; and the opportunity for kids to escape failing schools though a publicly funded school choice program. But this essential trio is being significantly altered as the plan moves through Congress.
The school choice plan was the first victim. As a candidate, George W. Bush recognized the importance of a vital education marketplace as a precondition for any education accountability. He argued, quite correctly, that schools would be unlikely to change if they faced no real consequence for failure. But the bills before the House and Senate now only allow poor children trapped in failing schools to use a portion of the Title I funds reserved for them to go to other public schools or to receive a very limited amount of private tutoring. The option of choosing private schools has vanished. The remaining options simply do not allow true choice.
The president should fight for this critical element of his plan, for school choice is not simply an accountability issue, it is a moral and civil rights issue. It is about empowering poor parents with the option of a better education when their children are trapped in schools that repeatedly fail to meet basic standards. For many children, a good education is their one best shot at the American dream. Currently, among fourth-grade students, two-thirds of black children, almost 60% of Latino children and close to half of all inner city children cannot read at a basic level. It is therefore no surprise that a clear majority of Latinos and African Americans support school choice.
The president's bold accountability provision also is unraveling. Under the original plan, each state would be required to test every child in math and reading in grades 3 through 8. Then, to ensure that state tests were sufficiently rigorous, states would be required to administer the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation's best measurement of student achievement, to a limited sample of their fourth- and eighth-graders.
But some Republicans, raising the specter of a national curriculum, have insisted on allowing states a choice between the NAEP and any other national test. This would be worse than doing nothing at all. The president should not sign a bill that allows anything other than NAEP as the benchmark audit for state tests. Under Bush's original plan, NAEP would merely track results; it would not be an example of federal intrusion into local affairs.
Democrats in the Senate are actively resisting Bush's attempts to decrease federal intrusion. Whereas the president's plan would allow any state to be exempt from federal regulations in return for stricter accountability, the Senate is considering a limited plan for a handful of districts and states. Senate Democrats view increased federal spending, not flexibility, as the cure. They are undeterred by 40 years of declining academic performance in spite of continued increases in federal funding. But as the Democrats' spending demands increase, the prospects for true reform decrease. More money brings more red tape, the greatest impediment to local reform.
Without these three interwoven ideas--flexibility, accountability and choice--the president's plan would encompass some good elements, including a bit of overdue consolidation of federal programs, a new emphasis on reading and increased funding for charter schools. But if Bush abandons the essential reform strategies on which he campaigned, he will simply end up in a bidding war with the Democrats, a war that he will not win. This would be bad for education and bad for America's children. Yours is a good plan, Mr. President. Fight for it.
William J. Bennett, the Former Education Secretary, is Co-director of Empower America and Chairman of K12.com, an internet-based elementary and secondary school.