George Bush and Bill Clinton both wanted to be an education president and both wanted to make U.S. public schools the best in the world. Neither succeeded, although in his various farewells Mr. Clinton talked as though he thought he had. Two immovable obstacles blocked their way.
In the first place, the regulation of education is a function that the U.S. Constitution reserves to the states. In turn, the states delegate the actual running of schools to local districts. Second, since the states and districts provide about 93 percent of the tax money supporting those schools, they naturally call the tune.
All the same, the federal government does have a role in public education. It can, for instance, help eliminate abuses like racial prejudice. It has also traditionally tried to equalize the differences between states by supplementing the efforts of poorer districts and making sure that federal benefits are shared by all children, whether in public or private schools.
Like his two immediate predecessors, President George W. Bush has promised to make the improvement of public schools his primary concern. Like them, he thinks the best way to do this is to prod the states into setting high academic standards and then systematically testing students to see if they are measuring up. At a press conference on his second working day in office, Mr. Bush introduced a school plan that is the first proposal he will be sending to Congress.
The President calls this his blueprint for reform, which is outlined in a 28-page executive summary entitled Transforming the Federal Role in Education So That No Child Is Left Behind. This summary is largely a list of confident assertions about the good deeds that are to be done to achieve excellence. Overall, though, the president has wisely focused on one great and persistent problemthe failure of inner-city schools adequately to educate poor children, most of whom are African Americans or Latinos. This scandal of illiteracy, he said at the press conference, is seen most clearly in high-poverty schools, where nearly 70 percent of fourth-graders are unable to read at a basic level.
To eliminate all scandals, Mr. Bush intends, as the summary puts it, to reward success and sanction failure. That is to say, Washington will combine a carrot (federal money) with a stick (threats to withhold that money from states and schools that do not perform acceptably).
Accountability is the buzzword. To continue qualifying for federal funds, school districts must show they are improving or have at least discovered what they need to do to improveand presumably could do with more dollars. To render the required account of themselves, the states must set academic standards and then test all students in grades three to eight every year to determine whether or not they are meeting these norms.
The tests, however, will not be imposed by the national government, but will be designed and administered by the states. States that show progress will qualify not only for the hundreds of federal programs already in existence, but also for new ones that are promised but not yet specified. Those that refuse to introduce a testing programas they will surely be free to door do not improve must watch out. They may lose federal funds, although it would be a bold administration that actually tried to impose such a sanction.
So far, Mr. Bush’s plan has met with bipartisan applause except for one very minor element. It is suspected of opening the door to vouchers, though only by a crack. The plan would take three years to be phased in. Thereafter, if failing schools continued for three more successive years to perform dismally, their disadvantaged students would receive a voucher making it possible for them to transfer to better schools, public or private. As Chester E. Finn Jr., a front-rank commentator on school issues, points out, if the rest of the Bush plan succeeds, there will be no vouchers at all.
In fact, the president’s proposal does not address the question of school choice, which is itself a question of honoring the rights of parents as the primary educators of their own children. This is an issue wider than and quite separate from the issue of rescuing the children of the poor from schools that don’t work. It is a matter of providing a reasonable choice among schools not only for lower-income families but for middle-income ones as well.
There are two feasible ways of helping families who cannot afford to pay full tuition at private schools: substantial tax credits or substantial vouchers. President Bush’s plan does not mention tax credits, and his chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., said last month, Vouchers won’t be the top priority of this administration.
President Bush deserves credit for trying to make sure that no child is left behind. Why not go the extra mile toward reform and provide school choice for every child?