Two key educators warn school reform faltering across US

After several years of steady improvement, the effort to reform American schooling may be losing momentum, say two of the nation's most influential educators, Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and California Superintendent of Education Bill Honig. They spoke at an education reporters conference here yesterday. But in a debate likely to increase in volume, the two educators disagreed about the dangers facing school reform, a movement that has prompted higher teacher pay, curriculum standards, and student test scores in nearly every state. The issue revolves around money and quality.

Secretary Bennett, citing specific cases, says school improvement is being ``hijacked'' by special education interest groups that are working against tougher standards of accountability and excellence. The position - taken by educational bureaucrats - that schools cannot improve until far more money is spent is simply ``polite extortion,'' Bennett said.

Superintendent Honig says the short-term thinking of politicians too ready to cut education funding is harming the still-fledgling reform effort. (Twenty-two states cut their school-reform funding this year, according to the Education Commission of the States.) The sizable investment taxpayers have made in reform stands to be lost if state and federal money dries up, he says. In a broader sense, experts say, the debate foreshadows the importance education will take in the coming presidential campaign as the issue of American economic competitiveness becomes more closely tied to quality schooling.

Bennett points out that in recent months Indiana Gov. Robert Orr's package to improve student testing and to expand the school year was ``gutted'' by the Indiana teacher union's political lobby. Texas has abandoned plans to test and promote teachers, he says, while legislators in Maine, North Carolina, and Tennessee are also ``backsliding'' in efforts to reward good teachers. Michigan stopped requiring a statewide science test because ``students scored poorly the first year the tests were given,'' he adds.

Honig, whose reforms in California are seen as a national standard, is currently locked in a battle with Gov. George Deukmejian over a $600 million shortfall in the state's education budget. Honig says the state needs the money for long-term structural changes under way in teacher training and recruitment. He is also in the process of forming a citizen lobby group for public education - something like the Sierra Club or Common Cause - that would pressure legislators on behalf of better schooling.

Honig agrees with recent statements made by President Reagan that the ``new consensus'' among the Americans is for ``basic skills, standards, discipline, work, family support, and ethical principals.''

But for Mr. Reagan then to say that the key to better education was ``not in the pocketbook but in the heart'' was silly, says Honig, who adds:

``Can you imagine the President of the US saying to the military, `You are about to go to war ... all you really need is heart. You don't need quality training or investment in people - just go fight and if you have the right attitude you will win.''' That approach would clearly fail, Honig says, adding that ``we are no different from business and the military - if you want it to work, you have to spend.''

To battle school-reform inertia, Bennett calls on local school districts to come to grips with the tendencies of human nature. Slough, cowardice, gluttony, and false contentment are dangers in any serious reform effort, he says. ``We now stand at a critical juncture. .... We must either go forward ... or fall back....''

Honig's battle plan is based on far more federal dollars (up to $15 billion) for education. It would be strategically spent toward ``leverage points'' such as teacher training, textbook development, technology, and reproducing proved reform measures. The US Education Department would also take a more strategic look at the role of education and American competitiveness, would track productivity needs, trade policy, and new research.

The money sounds big, Honig says. But since half of all teachers now drop out due to poor induction methods, simply keeping good teachers through better policies will give you a 15-to-1 payoff for every dollar spent.

Quality, accountability, and money will continue to be debated. Presidential contenders Gary Hart and Pierre Du Pont, for example, have already begun.

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