Educators, Analysts Hail Strategy as Bold Departure
Washington--Educators and analysts last week praised President Bush's "america 2000" strategy as perhaps the most far-reaching education plan of any President since Lyndon B. Johnson.
While many observers took issue with some of the plan's specifics, most hailed it as a bold departure from past federal efforts in education, and one that has the potential to transform American schools.
Unlike previous federal programs, which tended to focus on particular problems, they noted, the Bush proposal offers a comprehensive strategy for achieving the national education goals set last year.
In addition, observers said, the plan contains some dramatic new initiatives, such as a national examination system and a proposal to create hundreds of new schools, and it uses creative strategies to enlist support from business and from state and local governments. (See related story on page 1.)
But few of those interviewed last week were willing to concede that the proposal itself would ensure that George Bush becomes "the education President," as he has said he wants to be known. That designation, they suggested, would depend on whether the plan lives up to its promise and results in improved schools.
"Historians will have to answer that question," said Marshall S. Smith, dean of the graduate school of education at Stanford University. "We'll see if [Mr. Bush and Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander] follow through in the way they might."
"If they do," Mr. Smith added, "we can agree he is the education President of the last two decades, and he can compete with L.B.J. to be the education President of the last three or four decades."
Although few details of the plan were available until late last week--and many will not be known for several weeks--many educators said the fact that Mr. Bush offered a substantive set of proposals was significant.
In midterm assessments of the President's performance, many observers had criticized him for failing to match his rhetoric on education with substance. (See Education Week, Jan. 9, 1991.)
Gordon M. Ambach, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said the america 2000 plan represented a long-overdue change from the earlier attitude of both Mr. Bush and his predecessor, Ronald Reagan.
"For 10 years, the Administration's education vineyard was dry," Mr. Ambach said. "Any new juice is very welcome."
Terrel H. Bell, who was Secretary of Education in President Reagan's first term, said he unsuccessfully pleaded with Mr. Reagan to put forth a plan to follow up A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report that helped launch the school-reform movement.
"I couldn't get the Reagan Administration to support any kind of initiative," Mr. Bell said last week. "They said, 'It's not our role; education is up to the states and local governments."'
"To hear a President talk this way is surely different," he said.
Mr. Bell and others also hailed Mr. Bush for presenting his plan in such a high-profile way. By putting his stamp on the proposal, the President has taken a strong step toward gathering public support for it, said Thomas W. Payzant, superintendent of schools for the San Diego Unified School District.
"It's important that the President is interested, that he is putting the prestige of the Presidency on the line to say that education is important," Mr. Payzant said.
But Keith B. Geiger, president of the National Education Association, added that teachers might "be a little skeptical how serious all of us are going to be to move it forward."
To ensure that states and local districts carry the proposals through, added Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, Mr. Bush must keep up his efforts as a "cheerleader."
"Citizens must not only be active on reform, they must be supportive on finances," Mr. Romer said.
In addition to praising the President for coming up with a plan, many observers last week said that it represented an advance from previous federal efforts in education.
Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called it "broad and comprehensive, more so than any President or Secretary has come up with."
"In the past, federal initiatives were targeted to minorities, the poor, the handicapped," he said. "Of course, we should continue to target those groups, and provide additional services to help them overcome their hardships."
"But this is the first time the federal government really puts out a package not targeted to deal with special problems," Mr. Shanker said, "but an effort to improve American education over all."
John E. Chubb, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, added that the proposal also differed from past efforts by linking the federal efforts with those of local governments and the private sector, rather than coming up with new programs.
"Every previous Administration that tried to make a difference concentrated more on trying to negotiate policy with Congress," Mr. Chubb said. "One problem with that is, Congress really makes very little difference in schools."
But Representative William F. Goodling of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, cautioned that the plan would be enacted only after negotiations with the Democratically controlled Congress.
Pointing to Representative Dale E. Kildee of Michigan, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education, Mr. Goodling said at a press conference that the final result "will be some of his, some of Lamar's, some of mine."
In addressing the plan's components, most observers said the idea of creating so-called "New American Schools" was the most ambitious.
"I think I can speak for the business community in saying this is an initiative we're happy to respond to," said Paul H. O'Neill, chief executive officer of the Aluminum Company of America.
William H. Kolberg, president of the National Alliance of Business, added, "The whole idea of getting business involved in funding new research-and-development efforts, not8bound by past restrictions, to recreate schooling, is a very good notion."
Mr. Smith of Stanford cautioned, however, that the effort might not succeed in transforming the entire system. He recalled that similar efforts in the past, such as the Nixon Administration's Experimental Schools Program, created exemplary model schools, but did not spread their ideas throughout the country.
"The old-timer in me says, 'Is this like [the earlier programs]?"' Mr. Smith asked. "In many ways, they were powerful interventions. In other ways, the models that developed out of those programs didn't change the overall landscape of education."
Mr. Ambach of the state chiefs' group suggested that the Administration should work with the states to ensure that there is a mechanism to replicate the models.
"As the centerpiece of the reform movement, to reform 535 schools--less than half of 1 percent of the schools in the country--seems to me to require a careful companion piece on how states involved can get a multiplier effect," he said. "You can't reach half of 1 percent of schools, you've got to reach 100 percent."
To do that, said Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States, the New American Schools must be linked with state efforts to restructure their entire education systems.
"Unless that happens," he said, "we will have 535 excellent schools, as we already do."
Other observers noted that controversial portions of the plan, such as parental choice and the national examination system, might prove sticking points in its enactment.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the chairman the Labor and Human Resources Committee, called the provision advocating school choice "profoundly unwise."
But Bill Honig, California's superintendent of public instruction, suggested that, as part of an overall package, choice might be more palatable than it was as the centerpiece of the Administration's education strategy.
Others said the Administration should consider providing additional federal funds to bolster its initiatives.
Mr. Payzant of San Diego, for example, suggested that, in addition to encouraging local agencies to coordinate their services, the federal government could provide funds to help them bring such efforts about.
"I hope they could be as creative in providing start-up costs for communities coordinating social services as they are for creating a new generation of schools," he said.
Jeanne Allen, an education-policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, suggested that the plan offered too many "carrots" to local schools. Rather than offer new financial incentives for schools to improve, she said, the federal government should loosen regulations and allow existing schools to "do what they want."
If that happens, Ms. Allen said, "you'll see some innovations regardless of whether there are carrots."
But former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett said the package contained enough provisions to make substantial changes.
"If it goes far enough and deep enough," he said, "it could lead to an education revolution."