In an image-dominated atmosphere more reminiscent of an Academy Awards ceremony than a joint session of the U.S. Congress, President Bill Clinton on January 19 delivered a campaign-style speech as his 1999 State of the Union Address, calling for more federal control over K-12 schools to make them safer and more effective.
At the heart of Clinton’s proposal is a five-point plan to hold schools accountable for results by withholding federal education funds unless the schools first jump through performance hoops set by the federal government. Although Democrats embraced the plan, Republican lawmakers pointed out that some of the performance practices desired by Clinton already have been or are being implemented in many states without prodding from the federal government.
“Any time the federal government attaches strings to education dollars, it’s unwarranted intervention,” said GOP Governor George W. Bush of Texas, who recommended sending the education dollars to the states as block grants and letting the states spend the money as they saw fit.
But giving the 50 unique and independent states more freedom and flexibility was not what the President had in mind. Clinton called for changing the way that federal education dollars were spent, “to support what works, and to stop supporting what does not work.” He said he would send Congress a bill that would link receipt of $15 billion in federal education funds to the following accountability goals:
- no more social promotion of academically unready students;
- all teachers academically qualified to teach their assigned subject;
- low-performing schools either fixed or closed by the state;
- school districts issue annual report cards to parents on school performance;
- schools implement “sensible” discipline policies.
In developing his education proposals, it was clear that the President had seized on an opportunity presented to him just two weeks earlier when, in a comprehensive nationwide study of education standards, Education Week had concluded that most states “are skirting the edges of a serious accountability system” and that there was wide support for demanding greater accountability from schools.
The 204-page study, called “Quality Counts,” found the following:
- While 48 states test students and 36 publish annual school report cards, only 19 publicly rate the performance of all schools and identify low-performing schools.
- Only 16 states have the power to shut down, take over, or overhaul schools that consistently fail.
- Only 14 states give individual schools monetary rewards based on performance.
- Only 19 require students to pass state tests to graduate from high school.
- Only 6 have laws that–in the future–will link student promotion to test results.
- Only 2 have tried linking individual teacher evaluation to student performance.
In a survey that was part of the Education Week study, the public opinion research group Public Agenda found significant support among parents and employers for demanding greater accountability from schools:
- Most employers (77 percent) and parents (70 percent) support firing principals if their schools don’t reach specific goals–but most teachers (64 percent) disagree.
- Most employers (66 percent) and parents (62 percent) support overhauling schools that fail persistently–but most teachers (68 percent) don’t.
- Most employers (60 percent) and parents (53 percent) support financial incentives for teachers and principals linked to student performance–but most teachers (76 percent) don’t.
While Republicans have been at the forefront of demands for greater accountability from schools, their approach is to leave that responsibility at the state level rather than have it arrogated by the federal government. “We must guard against arbitrary standards to be imposed on local schools,” said Representative William Goodling (R-Pennsylvania), chairman of the House Education Committee, in a written response.
“Education policies and initiatives historically have been the domain of the states and their local school districts, not the federal government,” noted Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, testifying before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce a week after Clinton’s speech. He urged Congress to “unleash the creativity of the states.”
George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.