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An Historic Opportunity in Education

by Kevin R. Kosar on Feb 13, 2001

Kevin R. Kosar

President George W. Bush has put forth an ambitious education plan that would significantly boost the federal government’s role in public education. If his plan is enacted, schools receiving federal dollars through the Title I program will have to test their students and show the federal government that they are improving. If they don’t, Bush’s policy would allow the children in these failing schools to take their federal dollars and use them at another school.

Congress should enact this substantial change to Title I. This 35-year-old compensatory education legislation has failed to reach its goal of closing the achievement gap between poor and minority students and other pupils. States should receive more federal education dollars to help them better educate these children but need to be held accountable for improved educational achievement. Connecting federal funding to educational results only makes sense.

This is a rare moment when both Republicans and Democrats are calling for more federal aid to public education. Traditionally, at least one of the two major political parties has adhered to an anti-federal government or states’ rights line with regard to education.

In the 1870s and 1880s, Democrats, especially Southerners, fought proposals that would have given federal dollars for building public schools in poor districts. They warned of federal control over local institutions, the proposals were defeated, and poor and black children were denied good schools.

By the 1920s, the parties had switched positions. Republicans, led by President Warren G. Harding and his immediate successors, then advocated small government and local control of schools. Over the next 60 years they and their conservative allies in the South vigorously fought nearly every effort to expand federal education policy that would improve public schools. Rep. Caleb R. Layton’s comments during a debate in 1922 on a proposal to combat illiteracy are typical of his era’s anti-government hyperbole: “The plan is plainly unconstitutional, and in direct conflict with the reserved rights of the people under our national organic law. If put into effect, it will destroy the liberty of the people.”

This past decade has been anomalous. Both presidents Bush (the first) and Clinton fought for the development of national education standards, a policy that would have been unthinkable in previous years. President Clinton also pumped up federal education spending.

The cause of the recent ebbing of the “leave it to the states” position on education policy is clear. For almost two decades America has known that its schools are not doing as well as they could or should. Though student test scores have risen in recent years, they remain, generally speaking, at low levels. This national problem has provoked the public to demand a national — that is, federal — response.

Ironically, we have President Ronald Reagan to thank for this pro-government mood. During his first term, Reagan repeatedly promised to abolish the Department of Education and reduce the federal role in education. To this end, he cut a third of the department’s staff and charged Terrel Bell, secretary of education, with undertaking a study of the state of American education and creating state-level policy suggestions for remedying the situation.

On April 26, 1983, Bell’s report, “A Nation At Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform,” was made public. It detailed the educational malaise that gripped the nation and noted that in terms of academic achievement, America was being threatened by “a rising tide of mediocrity.” In his official remarks on the report, Reagan pinned the blame for low achievement on the federal government. He pointed out that there was an “almost uninterrupted decline in student achievement in [test] scores during the past two decades, decades in which the Federal presence in education grew and grew.” According to Reagan and the conservatives, the proper federal response was less federal involvement.

This line of reasoning did not play well with the media or public. Within two months Reagan was in retreat. When asked whether the Department of Education was likely to be abolished, White House spokesman Larry Speakes confessed to a reporter that doing so “could be very difficult legislatively” and the idea “hadn’t come up” lately.

Now we have the professed “conservative” son of President Reagan’s vice-president proposing to increase the federal role in education. Democrats are likely to oppose the portion of Bush’s plan that would permit children in failing schools, who typically are poor and minorities, to take their federal dollars to private and religious schools. If Congress puts the interest of children first, then this abstract dispute over the First Amendment and the extent of governmental power will not scuttle Bush’s proposed reform. Linking federal education dollars to school accountability is an excellent way to shake up the bureaucratized state schools systems. The old policy of throwing money at the schools but not demanding accountability makes no sense and has clearly failed.

Since “A Nation At Risk” was published, polls show the public has placed a high priority on reforming the public schools and is willing to pay higher taxes for better performing schools. If Congress understands this, it may work in earnest to reform Title I and other federal education policies along the lines that President Bush proposes. The legislators should not squander this historic opportunity.

Kevin R. Kosar , Ph.D. is a contributing editor at "Public Administration Review" and the editor of the Federal Education Policy History website. He is the author of "Failing Grades: The Federal Politics of Education" (2005) and "Whiskey: A Global History" (2010).