ESEA: Congress Must Answer the Hard Questions

Published April 1, 1999

A leading education expert says Congress must answer some tough questions about the purpose of federal aid to education when it reauthorizes the $13 billion Elementary and Secondary Education Act later this year.

If Republican elected officials miss this opportunity to reshape federal education policy, the nation’s education system will move in a far different direction than it needs to go, according to Chester E. Finn Jr., former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and currently president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Before overhauling ESEA, Congress must answer three key questions, maintains Finn:

Does Washington know best? Many decisions about education are properly the purview of states, communities, and parents, yet ESEA’s view for 34 years has been that federal officials know best, a belief shared by President Clinton. Congress must decide who makes which decisions about how to spend federal education funds.

Who’s the client? Although children are the nominal beneficiaries of federal funding, for 34 years ESEA funds have flowed not to individual children but to schools and school systems. Congress must decide: Is our client the school system or the child?

What’s it for? Congress must decide if the purpose of federal aid is to pay for better results or–as it has been for 34 years under ESEA–to provide more educational services. Today, there are plenty of services, says Finn, but they are of low quality and they produce inferior results. Paying for results would be a major reform.

Finn isn’t optimistic that the Republican Congress will avoid being “outfoxed” by the Clinton Administration and succeed in reinventing Washington’s role in K-12 education. If Republicans fail, “a rare opportunity will be squandered,” he says.