Taking Charge of Our Schools

AS analysts dissect President Bush's recent plan to improve the public schools, they will trace a record of intellectual parentage back from the president to Lamar Alexander, US secretary of education, and then to Chester E. Finn Jr. Mr. Finn's latest book,``We Must Take Charge'' (Free Press, 340 pp., $22.95), is the broadest and most persuasive prescription for the public schools to appear from the conservative quarter. With its appearance, the burden of persuasion on the education issue shifts squarel y to liberals. Finn, a former assistant secretary of education under Ronald Reagan and now professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, became close to Secretary Alexander when the latter served as governor of Tennessee. According to the Wall Street Journal, Finn is now ensconced in Alexander's informal brain trust as his ``main bomb-thrower.'' The secretary is said to have read an early copy of ``We Must Take Charge'' and to have told Finn, ``You saved me six months.''

Finn has much to say that is critical of what he calls the prevailing ``liberal consensus'' on education, which to his mind emphasizes equity at the expense of excellence. The major thrust of his positive recommendations - here he will throw traditional conservatives off stride - is that the country must move from local standards to national ones.

Finn urges a ``rich, common-core curriculum'' for every student in the country in the five traditional areas of English, mathematics, science, history, and geography. Then he wants a nationally promulgated exam to test each individual student for mastery of this academic core at regular intervals. Then he wants uniform agreement on what will constitute a standard of proficiency on this exam, to thwart the finessing of test scores at which state and local administrators are so adept.

Finn favors tough state action to put ineffective schools into receivership, to take them over when they don't perform. More to the point, he advocates choice systems for parents, one that permits private schools to compete with public schools.

He also urges school-based management, but subject to the rigor of his other conditions, so that ``the ends to be attained have been specified, the information and accountability systems are in place, and the customers can choose among suppliers.''

For the teaching profession, Finn recommends big changes: easy initial entry into the ranks; individualized compensation set as if teachers were professionals; hiring, firing, and salary decisions made by the school-based teams, with tenure replaced by multi-year contracts; and better working conditions, so that teachers teach and don't monitor study halls, cafeterias, and corridors.

FINN is brave and interesting when facing down unionists, liberals, and multiculturalists; not so brave and not so interesting when pussyfooting around his Republican friends. He does not envision a larger role in education for the federal government - all that national stuff, you see, is to come from foundation and university types and the business community and governors working together, with a little federal grant money thrown in. Otherwise Finn sidesteps the question of more funding, even for the r eadiness programs and longer school year that he favors.

This opacity on the subject of finance explains, perhaps, his being up-to-date with references to our war with Iraq but silent on the nation's ongoing economic recession, which is wreaking financial havoc on the Chelsea, Mass., experiment and other local initiatives Finn sees as the wave of the future. He has little to say about the inner cities except to come out in favor of marriage and personal responsibility and private acts of kindness and even, he adds solemnly, ``points of light.'' His discussion of the special problems of the disadvantaged student is reserved, literally, for the back of the book, and even there he does not mention race.

As for the public, it must be noted that Finn styles this work as some sort of red-blooded populist appeal. The puzzled reader, however, after flipping back and forth through the pages, will conclude that the concrete role reserved for the general citizen is that he or she should be a good parent, practice acts of private charity, and support politicians who agree with Chester Finn.

Still and all, this is an important book, more coherent than anything liberals have written on the subject in a while. The central threads of the argument hang together, and middle-class voters will find much here that is appealing. Finn's effort puts American conservatives in the nice position of being the radical reformers on a key domestic issue facing the country. What is at stake educationally is nothing less than the future of the schools. What is at stake politically is nothing less than the visi on thing. Liberals had better respond with an analysis of their own, or prepare to make their peace with this one.

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