Every opinion poll shows that education is now the public’s top domestic priority. Every poll also shows that the public wants schools to have higher academic standards and to be safe and orderly places. So it was not surprising that President Clinton would stress education in his State of the Union address last night.
The president wants to set federal guidelines for teacher training, student discipline, school performance and promotion policy. School districts that violate the new federal guidelines would risk losing their federal funding. Federal aid to the schools—about $20 billion—is considerably less than 10% of what Americans spend for public education, but no district is going to risk losing even that fraction of its budget.
The White House has raised the right issues, and it is about time. In the 34 years since Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, federal money has been spread to as many districts as possible with scant regard for whether its beneficiaries—especially poor kids—were actually learning anything. For too many years, federal aid to the schools has been both burdensome and ineffective. Now the president wants to establish quality standards to accompany the federal aid.
This proposal makes some important points: Schools should never have started promoting kids who have not mastered the work of their grade; they should have effective disciplinary codes; they should never hire teachers who don’t know their subject; and they should issue informative school report cards to parents and the public.
And yet experience suggests that when the education lobbyists begin to influence any future legislation, we can expect more regulation and more bureaucrats, and precious few real standards. This is why Mr. Clinton must link his proposals to deregulation, thus liberating schools from redundant administrators, onerous regulations and excessive costs, most of which are imposed by current federal education programs.
The best way to do this would be to turn the key federal program for poor kids—Title I—into a portable entitlement, so that the money follows the child, like a college scholarship. Presently, federal money goes to the school district, where bureaucrats watch it, dispense it and find manifold ways to multiply their tasks and add to their staffs. As a portable entitlement, Title I’s $8 billion would allow poor children to attend the school of their choice instead of being stuck in low-performing schools. It would be a powerful stimulus for school choice. At the very least, states should be given waivers to direct federal money to the child, not the district. There are additional steps that Mr. Clinton should take now to enhance incentives for student performance in current federal programs:
Renew a campaign to authorize national tests in fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade mathematics. President Clinton proposed this last year, but it has languished because of opposition from conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. If he can’t resuscitate that proposal, then he should ask Congress to allow individual districts and schools to administer the excellent subject-matter tests devised by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (which only statewide samples of students can take now). As the excitement over a new fourth-grade reading test demonstrated last week in New York state, nothing concentrates the mind of students, parents and teachers like a test.
Adopt, by executive order, a terrific idea floated by columnist Robert Samuelson: Require any student who wants a federal scholarship for college to pass a 12th-grade test of reading, writing and mathematics. Half of all college students get some form of federal aid. This should not be an entitlement: If students must pass a moderately rigorous examination to get their college aid, there would be a dramatic and instantaneous boost in incentives to study hard in high school and junior high school.
Adopt, by executive order, real educational standards for Head Start and set better qualifications for Head Start teachers. This preschool program was supposed to give poor children a chance to catch up with their better-off peers, but it has turned into a big day-care program with no real educational focus for the kids who need literacy and numeracy the most.
Require that those who teach in federally funded programs have a degree in an academic subject and pass a test of subject-matter knowledge and teaching competence. This should apply to all teachers, not just the newly hired.
Mr. Clinton has described some important changes for American education. Whether or not Congress endorses his plan, he has pointed the national discussion about education in the right direction, toward standards and accountability. If we can add to that a strong dose of deregulation, choice and competition, we will be on the road to educational renewal.
Note: The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and should not be attributed to the staff, officers or trustees of the Brookings Institution.