Is a “Big Hammer” Really Necessary?

Published March 1, 1999

The televised GOP response to President Clinton’s State of the Union speech was thick with philosophy but thin on specific proposals for meeting such priorities as giving “control of our schools to local communities,” or giving parents “the opportunity to choose the best school, with the best curriculum, best teachers, and safest environment for their children.”

That misstep was quickly corrected the following day, when other Republicans responded to Clinton’s audacious plan “to expand the reach of government on a scale not seen since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society of the 1960s,” as one observer put it. While Republican policy goals are similar to the President’s–as they were when Clinton announced two years ago that the “the era of big government is over”–the GOP approach to reaching these goals is decidedly different.

Emphasizing the role of individual parents in selecting the education environment for their children, Senator Paul Coverdell (R-Georgia) proposed tax relief for K-12 education expenses, while also stressing teacher excellence and parental involvement. He said he would again introduce the school choice vehicle he had championed in the 105th Congress: Educational Savings Accounts, which allow tax-free growth of savings earmarked for K-12 education expenses. Those accounts would give poor and middle-income families the opportunity to choose the best school for their children, he said.

Emphasizing the role of individual states in setting education policy, Senator Bill Frist (R-Tennessee) announced the Education Flexibility Act of 1999, a proposal to give states more control over their education dollars by expanding the pilot program Ed-Flex to all 50 states. In addition, Senator Tim Hutchinson (R-Arkansas) reintroduced the Dollars to the Classroom Act, which also calls for giving states greater flexibility to spend federal education dollars.

Echoing this theme of loosening strings and reducing bureaucracy, senior Brookings Institution fellow Diane Ravitch urged the President to “link his proposals to deregulation.” Writing in the Wall Street Journal the day after Clinton’s speech, the New York University research professor and former assistant secretary of education suggested the following steps to enhance incentives for student performance in current federal education programs:

  • Convert Title I into a portable entitlement, like a college scholarship, so that the money follows a poor child to the school of his or her choice–instead of the child following the money to a low-performing school.
  • Authorize national tests in fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade mathematics, or allow individual districts and schools to administer tests devised by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
  • Require any student who wants a federal scholarship for college to pass a twelfth-grade test of reading, writing, and mathematics.
  • Make Head Start an educational program again–instead of a baby-sitting program–by adopting real educational standards and setting better teacher qualifications for the program.
  • Require all new and existing teachers in federally funded programs to have a degree in an academic subject, pass a test of subject-matter knowledge, and pass a test of teaching competence.

“If we can add a strong dose of deregulation, choice, and accountability” to the President’s plan, said Ravitch, “we will be on the road to educational renewal.”

Attorney Brian Jones, a board member with the Center for New Black Leadership, expressed disappointment that Clinton’s proposals ignored the success of voucher programs like those in Milwaukee and Cleveland. “The few voucher programs that have been tried around the nation have proved successful, but the President’s agenda nevertheless preserves the public school monopoly.”

Speaking in Birmingham in late January, Representative J.C. Watts Jr. (R-Oklahoma), the only African-American Republican in Congress, also spoke in favor of school vouchers. Although vouchers and charter schools are largely an issue for cities and states, the federal government should encourage them, said Watts, the Republican leadership team’s fourth-highest-ranking member in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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