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Red, White & Green

Federal money and public education

By Chris PiphoChris Pipho is director of state relations for the Education Commission of the States in Denver. / June 21, 1991



PRESIDENT Bush's new education plan, "America 2000," is bringing the federal government around to the role it does best. By using a small amount of money in the key leverage points, it can encourage and stimulate a great deal of state and local district action. But not everyone is encouraged by the new plan. Some describe it as a bugle call from the White House, with the "feds" coming again to save American education. They point out that the states and local governments are already rescuing United States schools by paying over 90 percent of the bill and that since 1983, states, on their own, introduced more reforms than education has seen in 100 years. Others note that in the decade of the 1980s, states increased funding for education by more than 30 percent w h

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ile the federal government reduced its share of the contributions.

But therein lies the nub of the problem. After all of this effort, student achievement and other indicators such as dropout rates have shown little sign of improvement. Thus, says Mr. Bush in "America 2000," an education improvement strategy is needed that focuses on national education goals that set standards, that provides flexibility in exchange for more accountability, and in general "pushes and prods" the nation's 110,000 public and private schools into improvement.

Creating a more productive education system is both the nation's responsibility and the nation's gain. While states and local communities carry a major portion of this burden, most educators and state policymakers welcome a more active federal partner.

But as in all cooperative endeavors in business and government, the newest and most junior partner needs to pull its chair up to the discussion table carefully. Respect for what has been tried and what's in process is paramount. In more than half the states, legislatures and governors have passed mega-reform laws. Some of these have been in operation for nearly a decade.

While reform efforts to date have not produced the desired results, assuming that nothing is happening in the states, or assuming that a handful of federal bureaucrats can write a plan in 60 days with little input from the people it's designed to help, is setting us all up for a new round of "Hi, I'm from the federal government jokes.

There is also a concern that some of the federal education-reform designers want to use a choice/voucher system to direct federal money to private and parochial schools. The goals are enrollment freedom for parents and competition for the monopoly held by the public schools.

The American education system, however, has been built on the principle of separation of church and state. Breaking this tradition could turn the control of education into a court litigation nightmare and further detract from the reforms that are really needed.

More thought and discussion are needed to bring the federal plans in tune with state reality. Governors are key to the process, but former state governors may also be an untapped resource. The Education Commission of the States, the National Governors' Association, and US Sen. Terry Sanford (D) of North Carolina, a former governor of that state, suggest bringing these individuals together in an ongoing series of small seminars designed to further a mutual understanding of federal and state education nee d

s.

These seminars will involve several sitting governors with several former governors now serving in the US Senate. Each seminar will probe an education issue in depth. At the table will be another former governor, Lamar Alexander, the secretary of education.

At the first of these seminars, Gov. Roy Romer (D) of Colorado pointed out that the No. 1 problem facing this country is education. He then said that our priorities were off because this country was directing the narrowest of resources (the local property tax) to solve the problem.

It is clear that the federal government will have to play a stronger role in reforming education. Maybe the emphasis that was put on math, science, and foreign language instruction following the launch of Sputnik is a federal model that needs to be revisited. The National Defense Education Act mixed federal money with state and local resources and in short order had a visible influence at the classroom level.

The states have assumed a stronger education presence in the last decade. It may be time for a new federal-state-local partnership. Bush's "America 2000" plan could be a step in that direction, but it has to be a step in the same direction the states are going.