Little Education Engine That Couldn't

Chester E. Finn Jr., an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration, is senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which works on education policy

Judging from the number of times President Bush has urged Congress to hurry and finish work on the education bill, one might think something momentous was about to happen.


Assuming that the Senate-House conferees soon get to work resolving dozens of differences in their respective thousand-page versions, assuming that the entire process doesn't bog down in partisan squabbling over spending and assuming that some genuinely complicated disputes can be settled concerning how student, school and state progress will be tracked, we can at least look forward to an overdue renewal of the main federal programs. But the spinners would have us believe that this measure will transform American education. The more likely outcome is that little will change. This is so for five reasons:

*Washington's leverage is severely limited. It contributes only 7 cents of every education dollar. (This bill may boost it to 8.) Uncle Sam does not decide what gets taught, who teaches, who graduates or how schools operate.

*Although Bush proposed three reform engines to tug the sluggish education train up the student-achievement mountain, Congress disabled two of them. School choice went first; thus market forces and parent energies won't help pull the train. Neither will liberated and energized states, for Congress also emasculated Bush's proposals to give governors freedom to spend their federal dollars as they see fit in return for stronger academic results.

*Although testing and accountability remain in the bill, these will accelerate slowly. Five years will pass before new state tests must be in place. Ten or 12 years will elapse before achievement gaps between rich and poor children are supposed to be closed.

*The sanctions are weak. States that fail to make satisfactory progress will lose at most a tiny fraction of their swelling ration of federal education aid. A school can fail for several years before anything unpleasant happens, and then only if its state and district have the gumption and savvy to intervene.

*History suggests that Washington lacks the capacity to enforce its education laws. Nearly seven years have passed since the 1994 cycle of the act, yet today fewer than 20 states have federally approved plans for complying with it. Thus most U.S. schools remain untouched by the 1994 legislation except for getting more money. Seven years from now, odds are that few schools will be touched by the current bill except for the arrival of yet more dollars. Nor can the Education Department do much about this. When a federal staffer phones his counterpart in Ohio or New Mexico and says, "Your testing program doesn't conform to the new requirements," the reply will be that testing is up to the governor and Legislature.

Not all the news, however, is bad. The education train will move a little way up the slope in the aftermath of this legislation. Some states, including Texas, are making progress. Others will follow the act's lead because it's the right thing to do. The past few months' education debate has wrought a subtle but positive shift in the nation's consciousness, stressing anew that academic results are what counts.

But this gigantic bill isn't just a text to be preached from the Washington bully pulpit. It commits billions more dollars to K-12 education. It promotes good new programs like one for reading, but keeps many old ones despite their lack of traction. It expands a few programs, such as aid to charter schools, that may pull the train forward a bit. It also includes lots of dubious ideas. For example, the Senate version would fully fund the current program of education for disabled youngsters, which heavily burdens state and local school budgets, but which sorely needs a total overhaul. Pouring in money will only ease the pressure to reform it.

Bush began with a terrific plan, but unfortunately, what's emerging from all the congressional compromise portends far less change than schools need. This bill is turning out to be another triumph for incrementalism.

What a shame it's being touted as a revolution.

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