WASHINGTON — BOB KEENAN, owner of the Big Fork Inn in Big Fork, Mont., thinks his state should get no federal money for education and that the Department of Education should be abolished.
Mr. Keenan has acted on his beliefs. As a member of the Montana House of Representatives, he led a majority of his colleagues in April to reject federal funding under the year-old Goals 2000 plan. The program gives money to states for local projects designed to raise education standards.
Supporters say the plan reflects Washington's new hands-off approach to education aid. Critics call it a Trojan horse for more federal regulation.
"They [Department of Education officials] are trying to masquerade this as strictly voluntary," Keenan says. "But this appears to be a piece in the puzzle to redo the federal role in education," he adds, pointing to numerous Goals 2000 provisions, such as core-curriculum guidelines.
With the Department of Education itself on the chopping block under the new Republican-controlled Congress, the Goals 2000: Educate America Act of 1994 has become the lightning rod of a troubled agency.
Suspicion of the program has gotten so fierce that Education Secretary Richard Riley has had to write letters to many states with assurances that Goals 2000 doesn't sacrifice any local autonomy on education.
Goals 2000's troubles reflect the broader public antagonism toward government aimed especially hard at Washington, but that provides little solace to education officials who say they are being unfairly accused. "There are remarkably few strings with Goals 2000," says Mike Cohen, senior adviser to Secretary Riley on the program.
Gov. George Allen (R) of Virginia remains unconvinced. Last month he warned that Goals 2000 could result in an "unprecedented federal intrusion" in the state's schools, and stalled on the Virginia Board of Education's decision to apply for program money.
Riley insists there's nothing devious about Goals 2000.
"All we do is say, you - the states and local schools - have to develop your own reform plan to try to reach broad national goals," Riley says in an interview. "I don't think people quarrel with the goals. They're very broad practical goals."
Goals 2000 opposition
So far, Montana is the only state legislature to reject Goals 2000 money, and George Allen is the only governor to act on reservations about the program. But in the United States Congress, Goals 2000 is in trouble. The House budget resolution recommends its elimination; the Senate doesn't mention it by name, but calls for deep reductions in education spending.
All over Washington, respected conservatives - including former Bush administration officials who championed Goals 2000's precursor, America 2000 - are calling for its abolition. Former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander has likened it to "a fox dressed as a duck at a duck-family reunion."
Politically influential religious organizations, such as the Virginia-based Christian Coalition and Colorado-based Focus on the Family, have put the program squarely in their sights. "I know when ministers give their Goals 2000 sermons because I start getting calls from concerned parents," says Patty Sullivan, education specialist at the National Governors' Association.
How did Goals 2000 reach this point?
"That is a mystery to me," Riley says. "It is based primarily on misinformation.... We have a program that's in the law as a voluntary program, then people come back out and say, 'Yes, they say voluntary, but it doesn't mean voluntary and you know, it's just kind of a spooky version of interpreting language."'
Bob Keenan in Montana does not feel misinformed. He's read every word of the law, and can't even get past the statement of purpose without feeling uneasy. The Goals 2000 statement begins: "To improve learning and teaching by providing a national framework for education reform."
"That bothers me," says Keenan. "The federal government has no right to be involved in education."
Many education experts in Washington were particularly troubled by Goals 2000's establishment of a National Education Standards and Improvement Council (NESIC), which was to certify states' education standards on a voluntary basis. To many critics, NESIC was to be a sort of national school board, violating this nation's enshrined principle of state and local control of education.
At this point, NESIC is all but dead. The House has voted overwhelmingly to not to fund it, and the Senate is expected to do the same. The Clinton administration decided not to fight NESIC's demise.
Another controversy that heaped mud on Goals 2000 was the writing of national standards for the teaching of US and world history. The project, part of a largely completed plan to write voluntary standards for all core academic subjects, resulted in history-teaching handbooks that have been criticized, including by Department of Education officials, as having a liberal slant.
At the state level, though, Goals 2000 has meant a modest amount of money - so far, $85 million spread among 47 states - for projects ranging from charter schools in Massachusetts to parent-involvement programs in Kentucky. Montana schools were going to use their money in areas such as computer technology and foreign-language instruction. Nancy Coopersmith, the state's Goals 2000 coordinator, says the projects will continue, though the legislature's decision bans the use of Goals 2000 money beyond June 30.