George Bush is finally proving that he is determined to make good on his campaign pledge to be the "education President." He has assembled an impressive leadership team at the Education Dept., including Secretary Lamar Alexander, a former Tennessee governor and president of the University of Tennessee. Alexander's choice as his deputy, former Xerox Chairman David T. Kearns, has long been one of the most active business executives in the educational arena.
Now, the White House has unveiled an education package that calls for more options for parents selecting schools for their kids and for a new national test that could lead to more uniform curriculums. The blueprint calls for pumping $1 million in federal seed money into each of 535 experimental schools (one for each senator and representative) which could be set up by any community group--from companies to the public school system. This is a good start. But the blunt fact is that Bush's education plan can have only so much impact on the nation's deteriorating public school system. The reason is simple: The federal government has little power or influence over educational policy, short of withholding federal funds. And state and local coffers are the sources of about 94% of the $ 191 billion expended on U. S. public schools each year. Decisions on reform will be made by local and state officials.
Bush's main weapon to influence change is to use the Presidency as a bully pulpit. Federal officials can--and apparently will--exhort state and local authorities to try out new ideas and find novel solutions to the ills plaguing the nation's schools. But they can do little more than that. Critics in Congress and the educational Establishment are sure to complain that the package doesn't provide adequate funding for the initiatives. But with the federal budget deficit hovering around $320 billion, Bush can't just throw more money at the problem. Nor should he. The 26% after-inflation rise in school spending during the past decade--despite a drop in enrollment--has provided little educational return. That's because a big chunk of the increase pays for a growing school administration bureaucracy, rather than teaching and equipment.
Whether the country's public school systems pass or fail is up to the states and cities. But given the constraints on his options, Bush surely deserves an 'A' for effort.