Grass-Roots School Reform

Not more federal dollars, but more local control and choice are the keys, as incoming Education Secretary Lamar Alexander acknowledges

IS the Bush administration proposing to increase education spending by 9 percent in the coming year, as the president claims? Or is the administration parsimoniously ``cutting below baseline,'' as House majority leader Dick Gephardt has charged? Or does it matter? Lamar Alexander, the new secretary of education-designate, seems to believe that vision and leadership matter more. Mr. Alexander has made it clear that federal spending for the schools was not a preoccupation of his while governor of Tennessee. His state had its kids to educate, and it got on with educating them, but with lots more state money.

Alexander's sensible understanding of what can really make schools better is a notable contrast with the illusions of some of his predecessors, including Terrel Bell, Ronald Reagan's first education secretary. Mr. Bell took office a decade ago and ignored the GOP campaign pledge to abolish the department, dedicating himself instead to expanding its budget. It has ballooned from $14.7 billion in 1982 to $29.6 billion proposed for next year. This keeps the United States the world leader in overall spendin g per student, without producing significant gains in the learning performance of the nation's children.

Unlike past education secretaries, Alexander has actually run a state government and successfully wrested change from a state education establishment - what former Education Secretary William Bennett liked to call ``the Blob.'' Alexander's tenure in Nashville, 1979-87, made Tennessee a leader in school reform. Alexander also helped launch the deep involvement of the National Governors Association with this issue, culminating in the education summit that Bush convened with the NGA at Charlottesville 18 m onths ago.

The learning industry, measured by dollar volume, ranks with health care as the country's richest. Every aspect of the industry is fiercely and inescapably political. This will not change in America any time soon. Someone like Alexander, who both understands and has practiced in this politicized and decentralized setting, stands a better chance of helping communities and legislatures reform the system than did Bush's first education secretary, Lauro Cavazos, who did not understand it, or even Mr. Bennet t, who understood but had not practiced in it.

As an education-policy combatant on the ground in Colorado, I can attest how welcome the gubernatorial perspective will be in this key cabinet post. Experience here on the edge of the Rockies has taught us that having the right answers is not enough to make schools more results-driven and consumer-responsive. Political skills and political muscle are also needed.

Choice among schools, at first in public systems and eventually in an open market of public- and private-school options, is not one of the six reform goals set by Bush and the NGA. (The six, targeted on the year 2000, include five-year-olds' readiness to learn, a 90 percent high school graduation rate, testing at grades 4-8-12, math-science preeminence, adult literacy, and schools free of drugs and violence.) But choice is implicit in the goals.

Open enrollment inside district boundaries, with a pilot project crossing district lines, is happening in Colorado this year partly because our policy institute three years ago began mobilizing the idea power of advocates like John Chubb of the Brookings Institution, Joe Nathan of the University of Minnesota, and Chester Finn of Vanderbilt - and partly because some of us turned up the political heat with a petition drive for a full-scale voucher plan.

Vouchers did not make the ballot last year, but they did make public-school choice seem a preferable alternative for the Colorado General Assembly.

Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, meanwhile, last summer became chairman of the NGA panel monitoring progress toward the six goals. This responsibility, perhaps combined with the prominence that school reform assumed in campaign debates, has turned him from a tabby into a tiger on this issue.

In January, with a Denver teacher strike imminent, Mr. Romer invoked an obscure law empowering him to ban the strike, hold hearings with the board and union, and write a settlement. Surprising some of us who doubted he had it in him, the two-term Democrat now appears to lean toward the board's proposal for toughening the old feather-bedded contract.

The dispute is about power, not money. Settlement on the school board's terms last fall seemed near, but was vetoed from Washington by National Education Association officials who feared a breach of the union doctrine that emphasizes educational inputs over outputs. That would have been, and still will be if Roy Romer can broker it this spring, a departure with national implications.

Denver as the breakthrough city for performance contracting in the schools? It sounds good no matter who gets the credit. We would be pleased to stand alongside Milwaukee, the breakthrough city for vouchers, and Chicago, the breakthrough city for school-based governance.

The three cities, different as they are, have some things in common. None looks to the federal government to save its schools, and none defines its education problem as a problem of underspending.

All feel the rising anger of taxpayers and parents, especially in the black and Hispanic communities, and the impatience of businesses starving for qualified job applicants. All know that the solution is up to elected officials and community leaders at the grass roots, not educators on the Potomac. And all hope their task in the '90s will be made easier by a similar infusion of common sense from Washington policymakers.

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