WHAT will Uncle Sam do under the next administration to help the nation's public schools? How will George Bush deliver on his promise to be ``the education president''? Policymakers say that until the White House transition team sorts out such macro-issues as defense spending and which domestic programs will have top priority, it is hard to determine exactly where Mr. Bush's education rhetoric ends and reality begins.
Under any president, federal responsibility for education falls into two areas: programs and spending, and national leadership. Under Bush, programs will change only marginally; leadership is a more open question.
Bush's keystone education program - for which he has promised $500 million - is the establishment of ``merit schools.'' Merit schools, pioneered in Florida and South Carolina, are rewarded monetarily for a successful team effort by teachers and principals (as distinct from merit pay given individual teachers, which often causes jealousy and divisiveness in schools). The merit-school concept is widely applauded by educators.
Beyond merit schools, Bush has been ``very vague,'' says Jack Jennings, an education adviser to the House of Representatives. To keep pace with inflation, Bush will have to spend an extra billion a year on education, Mr. Jennings says. ``He's talked about $561 million in new programs, but hasn't said a word about supporting what now exists.''
The current federal education budget is $21.3 billion, more than one-third of which is Pell Grant money for needy college students and ``Chapter I'' remedial-education funds for disadvantaged children. Congress's own education initiative next year will be a $2.5 billion bill for preschool child care that will include early childhood education, and the reauthorization of spending for vocational education, school lunch money, and education for the handicapped.
Most insiders say this is the federal role that is most up for grabs. While Bush is the first presidential candidate to say education is one of his top issues, his transition team doesn't contain a single full-time education policy person.
Since the election, Bush has said he wants to call a conference of state governors to discuss education. ``That's a good first step,'' says Chester Finn, former US assistant secretary of education.
Bush has also reappointed Lauro F. Cavazos as secretary of education - a job that increased in visibility and influence under the controversial William J. Bennett, Mr. Cavazos's predecessor. Mr. Bennett made an issue of the fact that the federal government finances only 6 to 9 percent of the nation's education spending, and thus his job was to set a tone, to act as moral exhorter from the ``bully pulpit.''
The Cavazos agenda has been more uncertain. He has not come in with guns blazing as did Bennett, who attacked a bloated local education bureaucracy (``the Blob''), a ``wasteful'' system of higher education, and a lack of coherent values in public schools. The Cavazos style has been that of a consensus builder. He has made minorities and the disadvantaged his priority, ``what the role of a federal leader should be,'' says Jennings. But so far the secretary's ideas have been very general: ``A mind is a terrible thing to waste.''
The press has been favorable to Cavazos, the first Hispanic in the presidential Cabinet, and well-known educators such as Mary Futrell of the National Education Association have praised him. But he may be off to a somewhat bumpy start. He was not allowed to choose his own chief of staff - the White House filled that spot.
Some insiders suggest that after a year and a half, it wouldn't be surprising to see Cavazos step down and be replaced by an experienced education reformer such as Gov. Thomas Kean of New Jersey or former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander.
In the immediate future, Cavazos says, he will direct attention to ``school restructuring'' ideas - giving teachers more management power. Bilingual education, dropouts, and speaking out on why the ``educational deficit'' in America is as great a threat to the national livelihood as the economic deficit - all will be high on his agenda.
Second of two articles on school policy. The first appeared Dec. 16.