In the past few weeks a number of presidential aspirants have advocated new approaches to education policy. The campaign trails in Iowa and New Hampshire are burning with discussion of serious education reform. The message of the 2000 elections may well be: "It's education, stupid."
But we cannot afford to wait until the next century to embrace eduction reform efforts to raise student achievement nationwide. The good news is we don't have to stall any longer. Democrats and Republicans in the Senate already have an opportunity to pass bipartisan legislation that will set our schools on a course for success -- today.
The need for immediate action must not be underestimated. Too many of our schools -- for lack of accountability, for lack of resources -- simply are not equipped with the tools to provide their students a high-quality education. Ideological gridlock in Congress has only exacerbated this crisis; with legislation we introduced months ago, we have asked our colleagues to join us in advancing the basic premises of education reform that unite us, not divide us.
We recognize that in an age of limited budgets and declining property tax bases in too many communities, with demands for accountability too often ignored, the doors of comprehensive reform have remained closed. In the absence of real reform we have considered a host of initiatives which make promises that exceed their potential. True reform must empower under-performing schools to adopt all the best practices of our nation's best schools -- public, private, charter or parochial.
These reforms may well include the simultaneous adoption of decentralized control, site-based management, leadership by effective principals, parental engagement and high levels of volunteerism in our communities. By demanding greater accountability without overregulation and by investing additional resources, we can enable schools to embrace the long-term, constructive strategies needed to improve every aspect of public education and consequently to raise student achievement.
In the absence of effective management, reform has little hope of success. It is imperative that we address the great unheralded crisis in our public schools: the challenge of training and recruiting strong principals. By providing intensive training for principals in management, effective teaching practices and leadership, we can build the human infrastructure needed to implement reform.
We must also modernize teaching for the 21st century. Two million new teachers must be hired over the next decade -- 60 percent of them in the next five years. Providing every student with highly qualified teachers should be our highest priority. To achieve this goal, we should streamline and improve teacher certification, provide college scholarships to attract high achievers into teaching careers, end teacher tenure as we know it to restore accountability, provide mentoring and continuing education for every teacher and reward our best teachers by raising their pay. Nothing should focus our attention more than providing students with the best teachers possible.
Littleton focused America's attention on the crisis of school violence. These tragedies shed light on a problem, though, that is neither new nor simple; disruption and violence have long been chronic issues of concern to students, parents and teachers. That is why we advocate providing schools with an alternative path for managing disruptive or violent students. Establishing a competitive grant program for school districts to create "second-chance schools" would help both those students creating disruptions as well as those adversely affected by their behavior. Too many students who play by the rules are kept from learning by violent classmates, and too many violent students are thrown onto the streets rather than receiving specialized attention. It's time to equip schools with the tools to establish a range of solutions, from short term crisis centers to off-campus alternatives.
Parents -- not administrators -- must be able to make more decisions about which public school their child attends. Choice and competition create accountability, and we must allow this concept to flourish throughout the country by providing grants to states that implement successful public school choice programs.
Outside the Beltway, these suggestions seem very simple; only when mixed with politics have they seemed divisive or impracticable. We all know that positive change in the direction of our education policy will be possible only if strong leaders are willing to spend their political capital. The 50 million children in our public schools today would likely agree, and they should be the only incentive we need to implement these crucial reforms. With only seven months before the 21st century, we don't have a moment to wait to give all our schools the tools to succeed. A policy of positive bipartisanship today might preclude incendiary presidential debates in 2000, but it will guarantee better schools for tomorrow.
John F. Kerry is a Democratic senator from Massachusetts. Gordon H. Smith is a Republican senator from Oregon.