IN A speech on the 45th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision, Education Secretary Richard Riley lamented that "stark inequities . . . continue to exist" in this country "in the quality . . . of educational opportunities as a result of racial, ethnic and economic status." The administration is about to send to Congress legislation meant to reduce that imbalance.
Some school reformers think the bill -- a five-year extension of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act -- will turn out to be less forceful than it has been made to sound. The advance descriptions have nonetheless already led some Republicans to accuse the administration of trampling the tradition of local control of education. Nor is the provocation an accident as the parties prepare for next year's election. "We welcome this national debate; we want to bring it on," Bruce Reed, director of the domestic policy council, said at the White House briefing on the proposal.
The bill provides the continuing authority for the main forms of federal aid to education, grades one through 12. The money is meant to go mainly to the poor in hopes of helping them catch up. Success has been mixed, and the bill seeks to tighten use of the funds. A larger share would go to districts and schools with the highest concentrations of low-income students. Such schools would have to be held by state and local authorities to the same academic standards as all others -- no settling for less. They would have to be provided from state and local funds with resources "comparable" to the rest, above all with comparably qualified teachers and course offerings; the federal aid would then provide extra resources instead of replacing state and local money, as too often in the past.
The states would have to set clear goals for the schools and be prepared to intervene in the management of schools that failed to make "continuous and substantial" progress toward the student achievement levels that the state standards implied. The "intervention" could include closing the unsuccessful schools and letting students choose others in the district. States meanwhile would be required to "implement policies to end . . . social promotion."
Tough stuff, particularly when backed up by the threat of a fund cutoff for failure to comply. The goals are hard to quarrel with; the question is what the federal role should be. Former governors Clinton and Riley are hardly plotting a federal takeover of the schools; nationally, the feds pay only about 7 percent of school costs. The administration wants instead to induce state and local officials to become more demanding, and the record suggests that in many instances they could use the shove. Our fear is not of a takeover but of another layer of regulatory compliance that would become a substitute for the lack of progress it would help obscure.
The fine print of this bill may be less important than the vision of education it seeks to impart. Children can be given rigorous educations in any neighborhood, and the schools can and should be held accountable for doing so; that's the statement. Congress needs to decide whether it agrees and, if it agrees, what if anything it proposes to do about it.