Washington and the Schools

For its first 174 years, the federal government was, as one writer put it, only a benevolent spectator of what the states were doing in elementary and secondary public schools. In some cases, not much was done. As late as 1914, six Southern statesAlabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texashad no compulsory education laws.

When Lyndon B. Johnson pushed through the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (E.S.E.A.), the federal government began playing an active role in what was going on, or not going on, in the nation’s public schools. Indeed, President George W. Bush, like his two immediate predecessors, has said he wants to be an education presidentan aspiration not entertained by Washington or Lincoln.

A year ago, Mr. Bush announced his blueprint for school reform. He called for a national testing program to spur the pursuit of academic excellence in all public schools; he expressed special concern for children in malfunctioning urban schools, and he proposed $1,500 vouchers to provide alternatives for the children in the worst of those failing schools. That voucher plan was a minor and limited item, but by its very presence it recognized the existence and effectiveness of nonpublic schools.

In December, after much wheeling and dealing, Congress, by large majorities in both houses, passed an education bill that is the latest of the periodic reauthorizations required for continuance of the E.S.E.A., which was last reauthorized in 1994. Since the measure includes some of his own proposals, Mr. Bush professed himself gratified when he signed it on Jan. 8. All the same, he could not have been fully satisfied. Chester E. Finn Jr., a knowledgeable observer who was an assistant secretary of education during the Reagan years, said: This bill is to the president’s original proposal as Burger King is to a five-star restaurant. He granted, though, that it is a modest improvement over current law.

Mr. Bush admits he has not yet read the text of the new law, and it is doubtful that any legislators have eitherit runs to 1,200 pages. But with the help of extensive analyses like the one in the Jan. 9 issue of the periodical Education Week, interested citizens can obtain an overview of the law’s three principal offerings: money, prodding and exhortation.

The law authorizes $26.5 billion for fiscal 2002, an $8 billion increase over the previous year. It appears, however, that the appropriations bill will actually allot $22 billion, which is about what the president requested. Inner-city schools will receive a larger share of these funds than they have up till now, but sadly the voucher plan has been scrapped. Private school students can, however, qualify for certain remedial and reading programs.

Expansive goals are set, but not the means for reaching them. By the academic year 2005-6, annual tests in reading and math will be required for all students in grades 3 to 8. It is left to the 50 states, however, to design and administer these tests and to report the results when and if they get around to it. Schools are told that to be eligible for federal dollars they must make progress toward academic excellence within the next 12 years and have qualified teachers in every classroom within the next four years.

That amounts to an exhortation. Since federal money accounts for only about 7 percent of the public schools’ budget, states may feel no pressing need to comply with the new law. Representative John A. Boehner, the Ohio Republican who is chairman of the House Education Committee, points out that when the E.S.E.A. was reauthorized in 1994, states were supposed to implement it by legislation of their own, but only 11 or 12 states did so.

Under the Constitution, states have primary responsibility for education, but it is now clear that the national government has a supplementary part to play. To take one example: within the states there are huge differences between expenditures for schools in wealthy suburbs and those in poor city neighborhoods. At least six state supreme courts have held that these differences constitute a violation of their state’s constitution. But nothing much has happened. Without behaving like an overbearing Big Brother, Congress needs to find ways of promoting a reasonable and substantial compliance with its own funding mandates and also of making sure those funds go to places where money can really help.

Washington is in a position to identify nationwide problems like the failures of urban schools. But it should monitor the programs it sets up to see which ones actually work and deserve continued support. Finally, Congress should spend more money on education than it currently does. No doubt $26.5 billion seems a tidy sum. It will go only so far, however, in a world in which an Enron could in 2000 produce $101 billion in revenue.

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