On the school issues of overriding importance to American families, there is some good news to report. The debate at the federal and state levels is moving away from polarizing issues and quick-fix remedies that don't last. More substantial changes--emphasizing flexibility and accountability--are coming to the fore.
Congress has said no to vouchers, which would invest public money in private and parochial schools. The vote against them in the House last month was 257 to 166, with 52 Republicans rejecting the proposal of their majority leader, Dick Armey of Texas. Most lawmakers want to save the public schools, not subsidize an exodus from them.
President Clinton persists in pushing for highly visible, but narrowly tailored, Washington-style remedies. In the budget negotiations, he demanded--and got--a second year of funding for his proposal to subsidize the hiring of 100,000 teachers, yielding only to a GOP demand that more of the money be available to the states and local communities for teacher training, if that is their priority.
No one thinks it a bad idea to find more teachers and reduce class size. But by itself, most serious education analysts agree, it is hardly the answer to the shortcomings of a system that is failing far too many students.
While the 100,000-teacher proposal grabbed headlines, that approach is not the wave of the future. The clearest evidence of change is the proposal introduced last week by Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and other Democrats--an approach developed by the Democratic Leadership Council, which Clinton once led and Lieberman now chairs.
It would combine the hundreds of existing, narrowly defined federal aid programs into five broad grants to the states, giving them more leeway in the use of the money but also requiring them to achieve real education results--with financial rewards for those that do and significant penalties for those that do not.
Notably, that approach would be applied by Lieberman and his allies to the biggest federal education program, the Title I program that subsidizes classes for concentrations of poor and educationally deprived students. The Lieberman plan would boost its funding by 50 percent to $12 billion a year, but demand that states enforce requirements that all students become proficient in reading and math within the next decade.
Similar--but less muscular--provisions were included when the House passed its version of the Title I extension bill on a bipartisan vote last month. But the Lieberman proposal is superior to the House version in focusing the federal money on the worst-performing schools and the neediest students. The House actually moved in the other direction, making it easier for Title I money to be spread through all the classrooms.
At his news conference, Lieberman spoke the language of reform. Noting that $120 billion of federally mandated spending on Title I since its creation in 1965 has failed to close the performance gap for poor schools and deprived students, he said, "Our approach is humble enough to recognize there are no easy answers to expanding opportunity, and that most of them won't be found here in Washington. But it is ambitious enough to try to harness our unique ability to set the national agenda and recast the federal government as an active catalyst for success, instead of a passive enabler of failure."
Lieberman noted that his language and approach are strikingly similar to that of Republican presidential contender George W. Bush (though Bush would offer vouchers to students in persistently failing schools)--a sign this kind of thinking is gaining traction in both parties.
Yet another heartening sign was last week's report from the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan consortium of governors, legislators and school officials. It laid out two models that school boards could use to manage and monitor school performance. One of them uses improved tools for setting performance standards and measuring results inside the traditional public school structure. The second--and more daring--suggested option is that school boards set standards and measure performance but get out of the business of operating schools. Instead, under this design, they would contract with education entrepreneurs of all kinds to run publicly financed schools with far fewer regulations. In effect, this would make all schools in a district charter schools and, in the commission's words, make it a "system of schools rather than a school system."
None of these changes will come quickly or easily. Indeed, the National School Boards Association blasted the commission's proposal in a statement bristling with hostility toward decentralized control of education. But the forces of change are moving forward--and that is good news.