A Golden Chance to Fix the Schools
What is so striking about the debate over education now taking place in Washington is not what divides the Republicans and Democrats but what unites them. There is basic agreement on focusing federal spending narrowly on the poorest students; giving parents more choices and children more options; and making public educators more accountable for achieving measurable results based on some common standards. After years of acrimonious debate, which at one time heard calls for the abolition of the Education Dept., President Bush and Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) are proposing two very like-minded education bills.
The focus on inner-city schools is all-important. Polls show that most suburban school parents believe their children are getting a good education. By most available measures, such as SAT scores, high school graduation rates, and college admission rates, they are. It is the poor parents of the inner city who express unhappiness with the performance of their children's schools. For their sake, as the education bill makes its way through Congress, we would hope legislators are more generous in the final allocation of funds, as suggested by Senator Lieberman. It is certainly true that the U.S. already spends a great deal on education. But visit a school in a poor New York City or New Orleans neighborhood, and the decrepit buildings and crowded classrooms cry out for more funds.
Washington's education initiatives could founder if the right and left wings undermine consensus opinion. The GOP's right wing balks at federal testing standards for local schools. And liberal teachers' unions want federal dollars to go directly into teacher pay, reducing class size and repairing schools. They oppose Republican plans to bundle federal school programs into block grants given directly to the states.
Vouchers are another issue that could block legislation this year. Few dispute that public charter schools should be a competitive option to parents if their neighborhood schools fail. But there is yet no public agreement on the issue of vouchers. A recent Gallup Poll study shows that the level of support for vouchers varies with how researchers ask Americans about it. If vouchers are presented as a choice for parents, they get support. If vouchers are presented as government funding for private schools, they don't. The strongest support for vouchers comes from inner-city parents. In these cirumstances, we should increase competition through charter schools and keep experimenting with vouchers as an option.
President Bush and Congressional Democrats have a chance to show they can act together to help educate the nation's poor children. They should take it.