A Memorandum for the President-Elect and the 107th Congress

A Memorandum for the President-Elect and the 107th Congress Suggests a Centrist Path to Sweeping Reform of Federal Education Programs

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In the wake of a bitterly divisive election, President-elect Bush and the new Congress will immediately search for ways to bridge the partisan divide while solving pressing national problems according to the tenets set forth in their campaigns. Education is one key domain where this should be possible, says a new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Elementary/secondary schooling in the United States cries for centrist actions that yield bold reforms. It is ripe for a positive, actionable legislative agenda.

Concerns about education topped the list of voter worries this year and both major presidential candidates vowed to be vigorous reformers, as did many members of Congress. Not since the era of Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society has there been a better opportunity for major changes in federal education policy. In addition to initiatives expected from the new Administration and from the House and Senate, most of today’s major federal K-12 programs are due—or overdue—for reauthorization. These include the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the galaxy of federal research, statistics and assessment programs, and the Individuals with Disabilities Assistance Act.

In Education 2001, three former high-level U.S. education officials—Chester E. Finn, Jr., Diane Ravitch, and Bruno V. Manno—make bold recommendations for tackling these programs, recommendations that draw upon the best of both the Bush-Cheney and Gore-Lieberman proposals. They suggest:

  • Doubling the funding for Title I, the federal government’s largest education program, and turning it into an entitlement for all poor children in America. Restructuring 60-odd education programs into six streamlined and accountable grants.
  • Promoting greater parental choice—with states setting the boundaries in this controversial area.
    Reforming federal education research, assessment, statistics and program evaluation along the lines of a bipartisan plan developed by the 106th Congress.
  • Strengthening Head Start by focusing it on pre-school reading and math skills.
  • In recommending these and other specific reforms, the authors were guided by seven principles:

  • Offer freedom in return for results. The only strings attached to federal dollars should be those that insist on demonstrable results. Decisions about how to achieve those results should be left to states, districts, schools, educators and parents.
  • Prevention is better than remediation. Federal programs should focus on assisting children to succeed the first time around.
  • Power to the people. Washington should rein in monopolies and protect the interests of the consumers—above all, children and parents.
  • Fund children, not institutions. The top concern of the federal government should be the education of our nation’s least fortunate children. Washington’s obligation is to the children, not the system. By focusing on this principle the federal government will also foster the growth of innovative schools and diverse educational arrangements, such as charter schools, now hobbled by present formulas and regulations.
  • Inform, inform, inform. Washington’s oldest education mandate is to provide timely, accurate information about how things are working and whether students are learning, information that allows states and localities to identify promising reform strategies and avoid pitfalls.
  • Stop funding failure. Schools that consistently fail to educate poor children should not receive federal dollars, and states should be accountable to Washington for ensuring that this does not happen.
  • Use the bully pulpit to empower and inspire. National policymakers affect more than federal programs. They help shape the national conversation about education. They should speak on behalf of needy children. Celebrate success. Recognize and honor great teaching.
  • This is not a job for the timid, says the report. Cosmetic attempts at fixing the U.S. education system—and tweaking federal education policy—have failed over the past 35 years. Inventive, comprehensive solutions are now called for. “In this area at least, the mandate is clear,” states the report. “Do what it takes. Spend what it costs. But fix the schools. And start now.”

    The guide’s leading authors—Chester E. Finn, Jr., Diane Ravitch and Bruno V. Manno—have all served in senior education policy posts as well as academic positions. Finn is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. From 1985 to 1988, he served as an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education. Ravitch is Research Professor at New York University and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, as well as a trustee of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Manno is senior program associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation and a trustee of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

    The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation is a private foundation that supports research and action projects in K–12 education reform. Further information about the Foundation, as well as an electronic copy of Education 2001: Getting the Job Done, can be obtained at www.edexcellence.net.

    For more information, please contact Lu León or Leslie Blakey at 202-828-9100 or luleon@starpower.net.