Combative Bennett Charges Into Final Year: Says He Will Stress 'Accountability' of Educators For Results
Washington- The theme is "accountability."
With the 1988 Presidential elections drawing closer and the end of his term as Secretary of Education a little more than a year away, William J. Bennett plans, he said last week, to focus his energies on promoting, in speeches and legislative proposals, strategies to hold educators responsible for the success or failure of their students.
"We will talk a lot this year about accountability, accountability, accountability," Mr. Bennett said in an interview with Education Week. "We will try to get our programs at the federal level to focus on accountability and try to urge actions at the state and local level to have more accountability."
Mr. Bennett said he will propose revision of a variety of federal education programs to require states and school districts receiving grants to document the effectiveness of their programs; the successful ones would be rewarded with more money.
"Our Chapter 1 plan is the model," he6said. "We want to do the same thing throughout all the other programs. Where there's success, let's build on it, let's replicate it, let's reward it. Where there's failure, let's not."
The Education Department had proposed that states be required to assess their local Chapter 1 programs and to step in to improve those in which students did not show sufficient achievement; the plan would also have required states to use 1 percent of their Chapter 1 money to reward successful programs.
The omnibus reauthorization bill passed by the House last spring, HR 5, includes a modified version of the Administration plan that retains more local control of the assessment process and allows states to use 5 percent of their allocation either to assist successful local programs or to support innovation in other ways.
Mr. Bennett had also proposed that states and districts be allowed to give parents vouchers for compensatory services that could be redeemed at the school of their choice, an idea he now acknowledges is politically dead.
"Last year, we proposed vouchers and it didn't get out of committee; we just had our big shot at reauthorization of Chapter 1," he said. "I don't think we'll bring that forward again in that context."
Mr. Bennett said he would, however, seek to apply the accountability concepts in the Chapter 1 legislation to other federal programs, such as those supporting bilingual and vocational education. He also indicated that his support for higher federal spending may be tied to changes that promote accountability.
A Budget Increase?
The Secretary refused to discuss the rationale behind the fiscal 1989 budget the department submitted recently--which Deputy Undersecretary Bruce Carnes has said would be the first in years not to recommend an overall spending decrease.
"I haven't said that I do plan to ask for more money. It's just a rumor," Mr. Bennett said with mock seriousness. "I don't want to talk about my conversations with [the Office of Management and Budget] on that."
He commented, however, that if more money were available, he would seek to expand Chapter 1, special-education programs, the magnet-school assistance program, and possibly vocational-education programs--"if we can get the accountability aspect in there."
But only states and school districts have the power to require accountability of educators, Mr. Bennett added, emphasizing that much of his effort this year will be aimed at convincing them that they should.
To improve education, according to the Secretary, educators should: ''Reward success, not failure. Close down schools that continue to fail or replace the personnel in those schools. Fire incompetent teachers. Fire old-boy-network-buddy princi4pals who really don't care about what they're doing. Replace them with people of vision and commitment. Just have a system of true responsibility. It would be great. The principals hire the teachers and they are responsible for results."
Mr. Bennett argued, as he did in speeches last week, that the "reactionary tendencies" of the education community--and particularly the National Education Association--are the biggest obstacles to introducing these concepts into schools.
'I'm Allowed To Swing'
The Secretary said he would also continue to speak out on issues not8directly related to education, despite critics' assertions that he has overstepped the bounds of his office and that his pronouncements on subjects such the Iran-contra hearings or testing for acquired immune deficiency syndrome are designed to boost his name recognition and position him for a run at elected office.
Mr. Bennett contended that some of the issues his critics say are beyond his purview really are education-related. For example, he said, "aids is an educational issue. When aids was talked about, everybody said the answer is education. They threw the ball to me, and I'm allowed to swing at it."
He acknowledged, however, that some of his pronouncements--such as his suggestion that aids-infected convicts not be released--have little to do with education.
"I'm allowed to speak about other things, as an American citizen and a member of this Administration," Mr. Bennett said. "The fact that we've had some success in engaging the debate is good, and I will continue that despite the fact that people will attribute ulterior motives to it."
The Aha! Theory
While he admits to vague political ambitions, and has mentioned that he might like to govern a state someday, Mr. Bennett denied that such thoughts spurred him to speak out. He specifically disavowed any interest in a spot on the Republican ticket in 1988.
"An old proverb has it, 'Not even the devil himself knows the heart of man,"' he said. "No one can ever say for certain what people's motivations are. They are subtle and complex, but I will tell you I'm not doing it for those [political] reasons. I doubt I will be asked or offered any position on the ticket."
"It's a comment about this town, I think," Mr. Bennett continued. ''If you kind of disappear and don't do very much, people say, 'Well, I guess he got lost.' If you have any kind of impact or gain any kind of notoriety, people say, 'Aha!'--the Aha! Theory, he's doing it for ulterior reasons."
Mr. Bennett claimed to have no solid plans for the future. "Who knows?" he said. "My guess is the Republicans will keep the White House. Maybe they'll ask me to stay on four more years and everybody in the education community can say, 'Terrific! Four more years."'
"I'm not going to move back to be the c.e.o of some multinational corporation," he added. "That's not where I came from. We'll see what comes to pass."
Despite legislative setbacks at the hands of an often hostile Congress, Mr. Bennett said he thinks the Reagan Administration and he himself have accomplished their most important goals in the education area.
"If you look at my early interviews, what I said I wanted as my epitaph when I leave is that education did not disappear as a national issue, that in fact it became more prominent, that we moved the debate along and education improved on our watch," he said.
"We see some signs of improvement ... but more important, the life signs are there. There's broad consensus on a lot of the issues now--content and character and choice. Those are the big three, the three I set out early on, and we've succeeded there. On the most important level, we've kept the issues before the minds of the people."
Advancing The Debate
"There's a kind of pattern," Mr. Bennett continued. "We spoke out8and people said, 'No, never.' Or 'outrageous.' Or 'controversial.' And then six months later, the argument is going very much our way."
Mr. Bennett listed as ideas that were once "outrageous" but are now "part of the conventional wisdom" the need to teach about religion in school, doubts about the costs of higher education, and parental choice in what schools children attend.
He cited as legislative achievements: the tightening of portions of the Higher Education Act, such as the definition of eligibility for student aid; a still-pending compromise on bilingual education that will almost certainly allow more funding for alternative, "English-only" programs; and the accountability language that is likely to be included in final Chapter 1 legislation.
He also acknowledged that many of his proposals had been defeated.
"When it comes to money, we cer4tainly have not prevailed," Mr. Bennett said. "Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, have told us no, they don't want to make any reductions, whatever the deficits are. But I think we've prevailed on a lot of other things. With a Democrat-controlled Congress very much opposed to our basic principles, I think we did O.K."
The 'Nuisance' Strategy
Although he still thinks his department is unnecessary, Mr. Bennett said, he is proud to have made the most of it.
"The President said a few months ago that the department is doing a good job because it's not bothering people like it used to," he said. "That's partly true. It's not bothering the same people ... it's bothering the people it should be bothering. We are a worthwhile nuisance.
"A constructive nuisance," he added. "Sounds almost legal, doesn't it?"