Education has moved near the top of Washington's priorities again.
Both because President Clinton cares about this issue and because he hopes to deflect attention from his own impeachment, he devoted much of the State of the Union address to a far-reaching plan to overhaul the federal government's role in American schools.
But even if the White House were mute, the calendar says it's time to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the centerpiece of federal K-12 education policy since 1965 and a statute in urgent need of big changes.
For the first time in 34 years, ESEA reauthorization is in the hands of congressional Republicans. It's unknowable what they'll finally do. But they'd be ill-advised to follow Mr. Clinton's lead. He's crafted a classic Washington-style solution to the woes of US schools: more rules and mandates and the threat that federal funds will be cut off from districts that don't boost achievement, end social promotion, hire better teachers, and so on.
There's a far better way to go. The massive ESEA statute now spans 60-odd programs spending more than $11 billion a year, two-thirds of it on the big Title I program, which aims to boost the achievement of disadvantaged youngsters. But there is near consensus that most of these programs have failed to accomplish their goals.
Study after study shows that Title I has not narrowed the rich-poor achievement gap, that the "safe and drug-free schools" program has made US schools neither safe nor drug-free. Besides wasting money and dashing hopes at a time when lackluster achievement and weak school performance are our foremost domestic trauma, these programs are wrapped in red tape that often impedes worthy reform efforts. Almost half the staff of Florida's education department, for example, is engaged in making sure that state schools spend federal funds only on federally approved projects rather than on what a principal or school board judges most vital.
The ESEA legislative cycle recurs every five to six years, and Congress has always shied away from fundamental change. Programs have just gotten more complex in each round, and always with the pledge that they'll definitely work better. So far, they never have. The big question is whether the 106th Congress will settle for another round of tweaking or press for a top-to-bottom reinvention of ESEA.
What might a wholesale overhaul look like? It depends on how Congress answers three big questions:
Which education decisions should be made in Washington and which by states, communities, and parents? For 34 years, ESEA has taken for granted that federal officials know best. Clinton still believes that. Reversing it would mean, for example, cutting much red tape and allowing states to use federal dollars for reforms of their own devising.
Is Uncle Sam's client the child or the school system? For 34 years, ESEA has pumped money into public school systems. Those funds don't belong to the children or accompany them to the school of their choice. (That's why charter schools, for example, don't get their "share" of federal aid.) That's still the Clinton approach. Reversing it would mean reworking complex formulas, yes, but above all, it would mean rethinking a basic assumption: making individual children the explicit rather than the indirect beneficiaries of federal funding.
Is the purpose of federal aid to expand the supply of education services or to pay for better results? For 34 years, ESEA has acted as if the problem with US education is that children don't have access to enough of it. Today, however, almost everyone recognizes - and the White House and GOP seem to agree - that kids have plenty of services, but the quality is shoddy and the results inferior. Recasting federal programs to focus on results rather than inputs is as big a reform as can be imagined.
Does the Republican Congress have the imagination and courage to answer these questions differently - and then go on to reinvent Washington's role in K-12 education? Don't count on it. They've been outfoxed before by the administration and its allies in the school establishment, and it's likely this will happen again. If it does, a rare opportunity will be squandered, US students will be ill-served, and our public education system will be even further from the thoroughgoing changes that it needs.
Chester E. Finn Jr. is the John M. Olin fellow at the Manhattan Institute and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. He served as assistant US secretary of Education from 1985 to 1988.