Commentary

Watch Out for America 2000; It Really Is a Crusade

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If there's one thing that history tells us about crusades it's that lots of people kill and get killed in them. Should it ever catch on, the Bush Administration's "America 2000: An Education Strategy," which Lamar Alexander calls "a crusade, not a program," could litter the battlefield with collateral damage. Out of its grab bag of educational jingoism, fanciful thinking, and right-wing boilerplate could come a dark time for America's public schools.

The timing of America 2000's unveiling was masterful. For a conservative Administration in panting need of a domestic agenda it offered exciting prospects: a shot at pre-empting a powerful Democratic Party issue 18 months before the 1992 national elections, the chance to prove during a recession that money isn't everything, and, perhaps most unsettling for school leaders, an ideal moment in history for reappraising democratic control of public education through no-holds-barred parental choice.

Reinforcing America 2000's tempting political pluses is Secretary Alexander's track record as an accomplished and unflappable pitchman for "reinventing" the schools. (Newsweek's "Conventional Wisdom Watch" commented: "Wash. swoons over Ed. chief. Lamar, honey, you're on the CW honor roll.") In our post-McLuhan age of information overkill and sloppy thinking, the messenger who speaks convincingly in grammatical sentences possesses a telling advantage. To education-oriented Americans beyond the Washington Beltway, Lamar Alexander's reassuring voice comes as a welcome relief from the banalities of Lauro Cavazos and the outbursts of William Bennett. He is George Bush's new home-front weapon, quietly certain of his case, tenacious in pressing it--and ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The propelling theme of America 2000's 34 pages is the highly dubious proposition that our public schools are beyond hope or repair. Their rotten performance, swollen bureaucracies, and outdated methods consign them to education's junkyard. But they will need replacing, preferably by something really grabby, goes the reasoning. So let's enlist the services of our successful brethren in business. They know how to get things done, and they're great at research. Then each senator and congressperson will get a brand-new million-dollar school, our children will conform to tougher new standards and face new batteries of modern-era examinations, and Ozzie and Harriet will spring back to life with a ready-made family of clean-cut kids prepared to face a color-blind world bursting with opportunity.

Season the mix with an unleashing of "America's creative genius" and a couple of recognition and training programs, and, voila, education's brave new world is upon us. Best of all, it will take until at least the end of the century before anyone can really check on how it is faring.

This biased oversimplification doubtless does a disservice to Mr. Alexander and his energetic brain trust. But not too much of one, for America 2000 is simplistic educational ideology run rampant. Implicit in it, and explicit in the pronouncements of members of the Secretary's kitchen cabinet, is a set of abiding convictions that concerned citizens and professional educators must be prepared to weigh. To buy in to the crusade's most prominent feature is to believe, as the Secretary does, that we have already made our choice in favor of choice. Only the details need working out for private education to move from bit player to center stage in the nation's school play. But what details! For starters, let's try constitutionality, civil-rights laws, parental roles in private for-profit enterprises, and, towering above all others, ticketing millions of low-achieving poor children for education's scrap heaps.

Maybe these "details" can be worked out. But not by promoting unproven assumptions that far exceed the premises of carefully designed public-school choice.

To the gurus who helped inspire Mr. Alexander's crusade, public education's information base is badly skewed. Though Mr. Alexander's band numbers several certified social scientists who surely understand how learning happens and how public institutions react to social change, they prefer to treat federally sponsored research in education as another lost cause that government need no longer support. Even though federal R&D was making an admirable recovery from the chaotic 1980's until Christopher Cross was dumped as assistant secretary for educational research and improvement a few weeks ago, they now propose to hand educational research over to private interests. Remember, you saw it here first: If it ever gets off the ground, this turkey is headed for a bumpy flight and a crash landing, possibly accompanied by hints of arm-twisting and super-creative financial shenanigans.

And who nominated American business for beatification? Where did we get the idea that industry and commerce are doing so much better than the schools? From Lee Iacocca? Donald Trump? Ivan Boesky? The banking business? Secretary Alexander's devotion to the free-enterprise system is well known, and it's genuinely heartening to see so many corporations so constructively involved in helping schools. But, as the political economist Robert Reich has pointed out, "the suggestion that the private sector is taking--or will take--substantial responsibility for investing in America's work force is seriously misleading." It might be diverting to see whether General Motors or Montgomery Ward can design and run a decent inner-city school, but who really trusts them? They have had trouble enough keeping themselves afloat.

While most of the content of America 2000 is disturbing, what's missing is downright distressing. Even though it accords brief nods to current projects and practices, its heart and mind are elsewhere. As an educational strategy, America 2000 is a plan for Middle Class America, where pride in academic achievement still runs high much of the time and most people like their community's schools. That some of these schools are performing below expectations is lamentable, but jettisoning them in order to conform to a market-driven, private-school-oriented vision of schooling in a responsible democratic society is palpable nonsense. And very dangerous.

It is hardly a secret that the truly ominous crunch in our schools is in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and the rest of urban America. If these systems fail, we're in deep trouble. It seems that the only people in American education who prefer to downplay that truism (unless a few grant dollars come their way to track it) are the architects of American 2000. How can a landmark federal document on redefining and reconstituting education in American sail serenely past the issues of race, class, and economics in our cities as though they scarcely existed?

Presumably, the new crusade is another rising tide, destined, like supply-side economics, to lift all vessels. Try telling that to such big-city school leaders as Joseph Fernandez, Constance Clayton, or Ted Kimbrough. Or to several million parents of children who attend decaying urban schools. They have somehow managed to contain their enthusiasm for the prescriptions of American 2000. What they need, of course, is tangible help--and now--and not the Governors' Academies, New World Standards, and New American Schools Development Corporation the Bush Administration proposes to give them.

From its gratuitous and irrelevant kudos to Operation Desert Storm (''a triumph of American character, ability, and technology") to its six pages of unlikely questions and answers, America 2000 is easy to dismiss, even to ridicule, as a sophomoric catchall of Reagan-era bromides about the schools. It is that and less, but, as Secretary Alexander has noted, "there will be more to it than meets the eye, rather than less." His is the voice to heed, even when, as at the recent San Diego seminar of the Education Writers Association, his replies to tough questions are formulaic or evasive.

What America 2000 heralds is something radically different from the pretentious latter-day educationese of the document itself. Flawed though it may be, it is not unreasonable to view it as the vanguard of a concerted attempt to complete the domestic agenda of the 1980's, possibly as the opening blast of a renewed government wide effort to eradicate what remains of the compassion of the New Deal and Great Society. And who better to carry the flag than a widely admired and successful governor who knows the subject matter inside out, is busily cultivating James Baker-type relations with the national media's heavy hitters, and may have a political eye cocked to 1996? Lamar Alexander is not a man who expects his life's work to end when the American Achievement Tests are in place.

The tone of the Bush-Alexander crusade is not offensive. No one is fighting old wars. But it proceeds from a belief system that educators should be most skeptical about accepting. The omission of civil rights and equal opportunity, for example, is probably intentional; like its predecessor, this Administration would like to see laws affecting them rolled back or eliminated. Private education, an already strong and generally elitist presence in our national educational profile, is clearly viewed uncritically in larger perspective as a solution or even as a replacement for failing public schools. And most of a decade's work in school improvement is implicitly dismissed as immaterial to the new strategy. What ever happened to restructuring?

These are legitimate subjects for debate. But it will be frustrating to discuss them intelligently in the context of America 2000. In addition to killing people, crusades don't offer much room for negotiation. Though traditional left-right divisions in educational policy have blurred slightly over the past 20 years, discernible philosophical differences remain. In offering us America 2000, the Bush Administration is attempting to define and arrogate the middle ground. But this crusade is not a mainstream educational strategy. It proposes a major doctrinal revolution, one that should concern anyone connected to children and schools.

Vol. 10, Issue 35, Pages 27, 36

Published in Print: May 22, 1991, as Watch Out for America 2000; It Really Is a Crusade
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