William J. Bennett Comments on Sen. Lieberman’s ‘Three R’s’ Bill

Fifteen years ago, when I was named Secretary of Education by President Ronald Reagan, “A Nation at Risk” had just evaluated the performance of the American school system, and reported that the state of our schools was not only a threat to kids but to the future of our nation. In response, America has tried a variety of reforms at the state level. Most notably and most recently, we have embraced (in theory, at least) the idea of high standards and accountability. Almost every state in the union now has standards in reading and math, and twenty-six have instituted exit exams for high school. The slight increases in student performance, seen in the National Assessment of Educational Progress in the late 1990’s, reflects some success on these fronts.

But we have not yet begun to look at performance or accountability in the spending of federal dollars. Of the sixty plus programs authorized under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, not one rewards school districts or states for doing well. Not one inflicts meaningful punishments on schools that do badly. For the results of such policies, one need only look at the performance of our disadvantaged students. Forty percent of inner-city students cannot read by the fourth grade. And 77 percent of low-income fourth-graders in urban high-poverty schools are reading below basic reading levels.

In this context, the philosophy undergirding Senator Lieberman’s ‘Three R’s’ bill is revolutionary. It would fundamentally change the federal government’s role in education. Rather than specific and meddlesome requirements, ‘Three R’s’ requires that federal funds be spent toward six broad goals and thereby gives states some of the freedom they need to begin making real change at the local level. The ‘Three R’s’ structure eliminates the traditional, bureaucratic model of education spending and leaves in its place a performance-driven model. That’s the good news.

There are, I think, a number of areas where the plan falls short. Most notably, in its inclusion of President Clinton’s ‘100,000 New Teacher proposal’, which contradicts the main purpose of the plan: to give states more freedom to spend federal money on their particular needs. In fact, the Progressive Policy Institute, which played a key role in crafting this plan, writes, “President Clinton’s $1.2 billion class-size reduction program illustrates Washington’s obsession with means at the expense of results and also the triumph of symbolism over sound policy.”

There are other areas where the bill could be improved as well. First, states that are prepared to do so should be given the option to go even further than the freedom that ‘Three R’s’ provides them. To give them this freedom, the ‘Three R’s’ bill needs a ‘Straight A’s’ option. This option would give states the opportunity to act as charter schools, opting out of all federal regulations in return for unprecedented levels of accountability for student achievement.

Second, it is time for a national school-choice experiment. The ‘Three R’s’ proposal would increase education funding by $24 billion over the next five years, spending more money across the board but especially on disadvantaged students. At least one billion of this $24 billion should be invested into a national school choice experiment. For this amount of money, we could give 80,000 disadvantaged students in our very worst schools a scholarship to leave and attend a better school. For less than five percent of the total proposed increase, we would know, once and for all, how and how well school-choice programs work.

I applaud Senator Lieberman for his efforts in putting this bill together. It is an important and courageous departure from prior ESEA debates – and from the position of many in his political party. But I also urge him to make the necessary changes to see the bill into law. The ‘Three R’s’ bill has the potential to bring about a new era for the federal government and education, an era that actively emphasizes results over process and favors success over failure.