ESEA: Congress Must Answer the Hard Questions

Published May 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 be taken even farther from the changes that it needs, according to Chester E. Finn, Jr., a former U.S. assistant secretary of education and currently the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Before overhauling ESEA, Congress needs to answer three big questions, maintains Finn:

Does Washington know best?

Many decisions about education are properly the purview of states, communities and parents, yet the presumption under ESEA 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. ESEA buys plenty of services, but these are of low quality with inferior results. Paying for results would be a major reform.

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

Who Benefits from Title I?

Passed in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” Title I, or Aide to Disadvantaged Children, consumes the bulk of the $13 billion federal aid to K-12 education. Although a new report on Title I from the U.S. Department of Education says that the program has encouraged higher state standards and helped close some of the learning gap between rich and poor children, critics argue that Title I–like most ESEA 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 U.S. schools neither safe nor drug-free,” says Chester E. Finn, Jr., an assistant secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Worse, the programs are mired in red tape that often slows at real reform.

“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,” reports Finn.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.