New Deregulation Ideas: Advancing on Fast Track
Washington--In March, the National Center on Education and the Economy released its first policy document, a report calling on the federal government to spur innovation by freeing some schools from rules governing federal aid.
In April, President Bush endorsed the idea with considerable fanfare in an appearance at a New Jersey high school.
Now, with the report barely two months old, the Bush Administration and an enthusiastic legislator are working separately to make the idea a reality.
"I'm really quite delighted," said Marc S. Tucker, the National Center's president. "It has come a very long way in a very short time and fortunately in a very bipartisan way."
The center's report, "To Secure Our Future: The Federal Role in Education," argues that the current structure of many federal programs "has become a part of the problem rather than part of the solution."
Separate programs controlled by separate bureaucracies stifle innovation, fail to reward success, and make it impossible to design a comprehensive program, the report concludes.
It calls for freeing 10 to 15 school districts in rural and urban high-poverty areas from most regulations, allowing them to pool money received under separate programs. The districts would propose goals for their students and standards with which to measure their success, subject to approval by the state and federal governments.
Only those districts making substantial progress would be allowed to remain in the program.
Specifications 'Ironed Out'
Mr. Tucker, a former director of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, said the ball began rolling last winter, when John Sculley, president of the National Center's board of directors, presented its as-yet-unpublished findings to Mr. Bush's designated chief of staff, John Sununu, and later to the President-elect himself.
"We want to waive some regulations for poorer communities, allowing them to pool state and federal funds in exchange for higher accountability and performance," Mr. Bush said in April, addressing an education conference at Union High School in Union, N.J.
"We'll give you the flexibility; you show us the results," he said.
Over the past few months, Mr. Tucker has lobbied for the idea on Capitol Hill and consulted with officials from the Departments of Education and Labor and the Office of Management and Budget who are drafting legislation to allow deregulation experiments.
Last week, Mr. Tucker also lunched with Mr. Bush during a Presidential trip to Rochester, N.Y., where Mr. Tucker's group is headquartered.
"We have the specifications for it mostly ironed out," but the proposal will have to "go through the normal clearance process" with OMB, said Charles E.M. Kolb, the Education Department's deputy undersecretary for planning, budget, and evaluation.
Mr. Kolb declined to discuss any details of the plan. Mr. Tucker said that "it is consistent with what we are proposing in our report," but added: "I'll have to wait until I see it."
'Excited About the Idea'
Representative Peter R. Smith, a freshman legislator who sits on the House Education and Labor Committee, is moving faster. The Vermont Republican was an educator before entering politics, and was extensively involved in education issues as a Vermont state legislator and former lieutenant governor.
Mr. Smith sits on the Carnegie Forum's board, and thus is familiar with Mr. Tucker and the ideas advocated in his report. He arranged a recent breakfast meeting with Mr. Tucker and members of the Education and Labor Committee and then drafted a proposal that he planned to introduce this week.
"I'm excited about the idea of allowing a school district to say, 'We're going to do business differently, and this is how we are going to do it,"' Mr. Smith said in an interview last week. "What's important is that it shifts the power to make the proposal to the schools, allows the teachers and administrators to decide how they would structure programs."
"I want to move from a compliance mentality to an excellence mentality," he said, adding, "I don't underestimate the difficulty, logistically and politically, of how you bring school-based management into federal policy."
Mr. Smith's proposal tracks the Tucker report closely, allowing 10 to 20 selected districts to mingle funds from state programs and a long list of federal education programs.
Eligible districts would submit proposals and negotiate with their states and the Education Department, which would agree to develop "alternative regulations" to govern the projects. The measure would authorize $1 million to make planning grants to successful applicants.
If a district's negotiated goals were not achieved in one year, they would receive technical assistance; after two unsuccessful years, the negotiation would be nullified and the original regulations would go back into effect.
While it makes money from virtually every federal education program eligible for combination, the Smith measure, as drafted, is limited to use "of amounts provided for programs relating to vocational education and youth services."
Mr. Smith said he was open to broadening the measure, and that he wrote it that way because he first offered his proposal as an amendment to HR 7, the vocational-education reauthorization bill approved recently by the House.
Aides said that Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, the California Democrat who chairs the Education and Labor Committee, and Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, the panel's ranking Republican, persuaded Mr. Smith to withdraw what they thought was a hastily drafted measure and promised a hearing instead.
At the hearing, held last week by the Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education Subcommittee, Mr. Smith received a mixture of praise and sharp criticism from panel members and education advocates.
Gordon Ambach, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Freeman Van Wickler, who testified on behalf of the American Association of School Administrators, backed the proposal enthusiastically, although they said the responsibilities of each party should be further clarified.
Gary Timmons, a legislative specialist at the National Education Association, said in an interview that the union was interested in the idea but would like to see it implemented only after extensive consultation.
"Our attitude basically is that this is an unprecedented step, something we need to proceed with slowly after careful investigation and field testing," he said.
Some panel members expressed concern about ensuring that the disadvantaged populations targeted by federal education programs would be served under negotiated plans.
"I'm ambivalent to a large extent," Mr. Hawkins said. "The road to hell is paved with demonstrations."
The chairman also said he did not "trust" the Education Department to implement plans that call for "alternative regulations."
But the strongest criticism came from Phyllis McClure, director of the division of policy and information of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who said there "are simply too many unanswered questions."
"That is not to say that LDF would be opposed to some experiments with different uses of federal money if they were carefully controlled and rigorously evaluated and if a basis were established for the need," she said.
Ms. McClure argued that the bill should specify more clearly which education programs are included and which regulations could be altered. She asked, for example, whether schools could ignore rules requiring them to use federal aid only to supplement, not supplant, local funds.
Expected "performance outcomes" must also be specified more clearly, she said.
"In the absence of any clear statutory language, the Legal Defense Fund is extremely reluctant to leave these decisions to the Education Department," Ms. McClure said. "Congress must be very clear about what it is that these demonstration projects are supposed to demonstrate."
Some Lawmakers 'Intrigued'
Aides said both Mr. Hawkins and Mr. Goodling were "intrigued" by the deregulation idea, but were concerned about possible unintended consequences.
"A lot depends on how Mr. Smith addresses the criticisms," said John F. Jennings, counsel to the Education and Labor Committee.
Mr. Smith said he planned to introduce a bill this week, with a half-dozen committee members as cosponsors. He said he would hold "roundtables" with legislators and advocates, and was open to any and all suggestions. He also said he was pleased, rather than threatened, at the prospect of another bill drafted by the Administration.
"It can't be anything but constructive if they come in with something similar and have a voice in how it's structured," he said.
Both Mr. Smith and Mr. Kolb stressed that they had no intention of allowing school districts to abandon their responsibility to disadvantaged students.
"I don't think anybody engaged in this is looking for a way to let anyone off the hook," Mr. Kolb said. "This is not a deregulation effort; it is flexibility and innovation tied to accountability and performance."
Vol. 08, Issue 35, Pages 11, 15