In his something-for-everybody state of the Union address, President Clinton outlined a dramatic new approach to federal education aid. Let's take that $15 billion the federal government spends each year on education, he said, support what works, and eliminate what doesn't.
The president called for tying federal aid to a series of performance requirements: Teachers must be trained in the subjects they teach and pass performance exams. Report cards must be issued on the performance of individual schools. Districts must implement formal discipline policies and close poorly performing schools if they can't be turned around. "Social promotion" of students to the next grade must end.
Those are good ideas. States and local school districts should implement many of them - but without the threat of funding cut-offs by Washington. It's not the federal government's business to micromanage local school districts. Constitutionally and practically, education is not a federal responsibility; it properly belongs to the states.
That's not to say the federal government has no role to play. Federal education money should be targeted to problems that local schools can't solve on their own or that are caused by federal policies. Washington can assist depressed rural districts or cities with declining tax bases and decrepit buildings. It can help states and districts dealing with the demographic impact of federal immigration policies. It can encourage innovative experiments as it has done with charter schools, an effective alternative to traditional public schools.
The president and Congress can work together to improve the federal education effort. Getting rid of duplicative and overlapping federal education programs would be a good first step. Cutting paperwork and creating more flexibility in how schools implement federal programs would be another. So would sharing with states and schools useful research on what works and what doesn't.
But it's time to dismiss the notion that the federal government can craft one-size-fits-all solutions that will work in New York City; Jackson, Miss.; and Marin County, Calif. Congress cannot serve as a national school board; the secretary of education is not the national superintendent of schools.
Republicans respond with their "dollars to the classroom" proposal, which would consolidate 31 federal programs and send money directly to local schools, bypassing federal and state bureaucrats. They will have to meet White House objections that their plan provides little accountability to ensure the funds are wisely spent.
Money is not the problem facing education in America today. What's needed are more educational choices, qualified and enthusiastic teachers, supportive parents, and flexible bureaucracies that get out of the way and let others do their jobs.