Commentary

Using Education's 'Bully Pulpit': National Leadership for Schools

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Education is now viewed by just about everyone as a matter of great national importance. Concern about the declining quality of teaching and learning crosses all geographic boundaries and is a topic of interest not only to educators but also to economists, business leaders, and others who, until recently, have not looked upon education as very important to their separate and collective futures. And this dramatic rise of education to the top of the nation's public-policy agenda has happened during the Reagan Administration. Who would have believed it four years ago?

Probably not many people, including the President himself. After all, Mr. Reagan campaigned to abolish the Education Department and to reduce substantially federal funds for state and local education agencies and also for college students in need of loans and other assistance. His ideas for new programs in education included tuition tax credits and prayer in the schools, proposals that have had a divisive effect on the Congress, to say the least.

Yet, just a few weeks ago Terrel H. Bell resigned as Secretary of Education, expressing pride in his role in saving and raising the profile of the department, whose budget grew from $14.8 billion in fiscal 1981 to $17.9 billion this year, and hope that the department would continue to be a source of effective leadership and assistance to those involved in education at the state and local level.

How did this happen? How has the Education Department not only survived but prevailed as a source of national leadership in education? Perhaps an insight I gained more than five years ago helps explain. As leader of the Carter Administration task force that developed and advocated legislation to establish a cabinet-level department for education, I often thought about how we could convince members of Congress of the department's merit. The best argument, in my view, was intangible: the value of visible, public leadership. Though there would be no guarantees of success, Cabinet status would give the secretary of education a "bully pulpit" to take the important issues to the people. I firmly believe that effective people and good ideas are far more important than organization charts; nevertheless, people with good ideas have little effect if their ideas aren't heard.

Mine was not the winning argument for the Department of Education Organization Act, which was enacted in 1979. Though a few advocates, most notably Senator Abraham Ribicoff, Democrat of Connecticut (who served as secretary of health, education, and welfare in the Kennedy Administration), believed in the leadership factor, it won few votes in the Congress. Instead, breaking up the hew bureaucracy and streamlining the management of federal education programs were the arguments that won the day. The Congress was and is inclined to be persuaded by tangible facts and figures, costs and benefits--not abstract promises of more visible leadership and the bully pulpit. And yet, it was the bully pulpit that brought us "A Nation at Risk," the report of Mr. Bell's National Commission on Excellence in Education.

The commission members were talented and their ideas were compelling, to be sure, but would that report have drawn the attention of the President and the press if it had been written for and presented to the head of a sub-Cabinet office in HEW? I don't think so.

As it turned out, the American people were jolted by "A Nation at Risk." The White House was clearly impressed by the depth of public concern over the declining quality of education: The proposal to abolish the Education Department was abandoned, and in speeches around the country the President's attention turned to reflecting public attitudes about education as reported in the polls. Clearly, the report of the excellence commission was Mr. Bell's most important contribution to American education, and its significance is immeasurable. It gave the Secretary the standing he needed within the Reagan Administration to allow him not only to promote educational reform but to strengthen the Education Department. His was the leadership of ideas, not programs, and Mr. Bell's legacy to his successor is the opportunity to shape the specifics of a national strategy.

As "A Nation at Risk" states, "The federal government has the primary responsibility to identify the national interest in education ... [and] ... help fund and support efforts to promote that interest. It must provide the national leadership to ensure that the nation's public and private resources are marshalled to address the issues discussed in this report."

The reforms enacted in response to the commission's report have been initiated and enacted at the state and local level only. At the federal level, although the debate about the national interest in education has begun, a clear definition of the federal role and the necessary reform measures has not yet emerged. Perhaps this is because Mr. Bell had neither the time nor the resources to move down the path charted by the report.

It has been the Congress that has increased funding for programs and passed legislation to help improve science and mathematics education. Although for a while the President did take the bully pulpit to preach about higher standards, merit pay for teachers, and discipline in the schools, unfortunately, education did not become a major campaign issue in 1984. Except for his proposal to send a teacher into space, Mr. Reagan seemed to rest on the "Nation at Risk" report as his Administration's statement on the issue. In his campaign speeches, the President responded only to those educational concerns, such as lack of discipline, expressed in public-opinion polls.

The federal role in education historically has mainly been a response to crises or such broad national concerns as the launching of Sputnik, the civil-rights movement, and the "War on Poverty." It is unclear now whether the perception that the current "crisis" in the quality of American education is viewed as serious enough to promote action at the federal level. The response so far has been more symbolic than substantive.

Much more is needed both in terms of leadership to devise a national strategy for excellence in education and resources to make it happen at the local level. The priorities of Mr. Reagan's second term will be signaled with the choice of the new secretary. If the White House chooses a very conservative leader with an agenda similar to that of four years ago, then the department will become a staging ground for skirmishes with the Congress and the site of some internal battles as well. It is hard to imagine that this could be the right course for improving educational quality.

A more moderate leader, who is well respected in the education community and committed to working with the Congress to develop an effective federal role, might have a better chance of making a lasting contribution. Managing the federal programs well, setting the right tone for a helpful partnership with state and local education leaders, and listening to the American people will be essential if education policy and the work of the department are to move beyond their current focus on equal opportunity and research.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the American people have been far ahead of the politicians in their commitment to education and their willingness to invest more to improve its quality. Results of the annual Gallup Poll on education have indicated for years that Americans believe education is more important to the nation's future than industrial might or military strength. Most people believe that education should be the top priority for additional federal funds, ahead of national defense, health, and welfare. The most recent Gallup Poll shows that the portion of respondents willing to pay higher taxes for education has grown--from 30 percent in 1980 to 41 percent this year.

How the new secretary of education fares will depend in part on how he leads a department beset by threats to slow down the much-needed current assessment and redefinition of the federal role in education. Secretary Bell, with the help of the Congress, was remarkably successful in balancing the crosscurrents of the last four years and in keeping federal education programs on a fairly steady course. His successor's experience will depend on a number of factors.

First, the deficit, estimates of which have risen since the election, casts a shadow over all domestic-spending programs. Education is prominent among those discretionary domestic programs that the Reagan Administration has tried in the past to cut. The Congress has fought these cuts,and probably can be expected to continue the fight over the next four years.

Another detractor is the possibility of further debate in the Congress about school prayer and tuition tax credits. The Administration's most conservative constituency is pressing for these measures, so it will be very interesting to observe how the new secretary of education sets his or her priorities.

On a more positive note, Administration officials do pay attention to the polls and are aware of the public's support for improving and investing more in education. Also, young voters, ages 18 to 30, form the most important new constituency of this Administration and they care about education--higher education for themselves or primary education for their children. The public concern about education is not going to go away and should help sustain the national focus on schooling.

Most observers believe that not much will change in the second Reagan term. The changes in the ideological makeup of the Congress and its education committees as a result of the 1984 elections are marginal. Maybe staying the course of federal education programs and encouraging state and local reforms will be enough for a while to hold off the "rising tide of mediocrity." It is tantalizing, however, to ponder the possibilities if the Congress and the new secretary of education choose to address some of the tough questions about how important education really is to our economic growth and national security and what that means in terms of the federal role. For example:

  • How can the federal government encourage and support educational reform efforts at the community level?
  • Does it make sense to extend the successful preschool and elementary-school compensatory-education programs into the high schools, which, according to many recent studies, are in big trouble?
  • How can the nation motivate good students to go into teaching?
  • What response can the government make to offset the increasing shortages of qualified teachers, particularly now in science and math?
  • How can education research be made more relevant and practical for educators?

The specific answers to these questions are, in my view, not as important as the need for a strong leader who can find solutions that are agreeable to both the Congress and the education community. Of course, some of the solutions will require more funding. For example, the Higher Education Act that will be reauthorized in 1985 could easily include scholarship or loan programs to help good students become teachers, particularly in areas experiencing teacher shortages.

The point is this: Education issues are of national importance. They cross state and local boundaries. Leaders at the federal level must come up with answers and the resources to make a difference. The budget process and perhaps oversight hearings on elementary and secondary education programs will provide a forum. Now all we need is the leadership.

Vol. 04, Issue 14, Page 24, 18

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