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The President's Education Plan: A Sampling of Opinion

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The [Bush] plan's real importance is in how it may change, directly and indirectly, the way federal, state, and local governments spend their education dollars. To that end, it seeks to increase accountability, foster innovation, and encourage a better match between workplace needs and adult skills training ...

The Bush program recognizes and honors the American tradition of state and local control in both the funding and operation of schools. It also recognizes the Washington fiscal reality of a $300 billion deficit.

It proposes, by using legitimate federal leverage, to boost the achievement of American schoolchildren and, thus, of the American nation. It deserves a test.

The Chicago Tribune.

Education is the most decentralized part of American government. Substantial reform and improvement has to be a bottom-up process, enlisting individual citizens and communities. A President and Administration can urge change--but not order it. [Secretary of Education Lamar] Alexander is right in saying that the main problem is not lack of funds but complacency. Too many of us, he says, believe "the nation is at risk, but I'm O.K."

To have a conservative President of the United States and an education secretary as persuasive as Alexander saying over and over again that we are all at risk unless we set and achieve radically improved education standards is no small thing.

David Broder, syndicated columnist, The Washington Post.

Bush is big on awards. Thus, he wants to give grants of federal dollars to schools whose students really show improvement. Nice idea. But does this mean he'd refuse to put new federal dollars in schools that are slipping backward? If not, does this mean the President is willing to let some schools go down the drain? How awful to contemplate that this great country can write off any school.

But the President's vision doesn't extend to providing equal access to a good education for every child. Or a federal guarantee that every school will have its basic needs met. Bush's revolution doesn't intend to push back the frontiers of desegregation and racial justice in the schools.

It's principally a revolution to benefit the privileged and the middle-class already in good schools. In Bush's America, the poor are forgotten.

The Journal-Gazette, Fort Wayne, Ind.

[The President's] central idea is an old one whose time has come: parental choice of school, which will introduce cleansing competition to the stolid monopoly that is now the public system. "The money follows the children and the children follow the good schools."

Competition, not monopoly, is the American way; we have seen it work and produce. In schooling, let bad schools fail; close them; guarantee their students access to successful schools. Then revamp some of the failed schools, open them under new management to put competitive pressure on the others.

William Safire, syndicated columnist, The New York Times.

Not once in his 24-minute education address did Bush utter the words "public school." In fact, Bush wants to erase public education as fully from the American vocabulary as he did from his speech. To Bush, ''parental choice" doesn't mean encouraging flexible alternatives to sometimes-stagnant neighborhood schools ... It means removing tax dollars from public classrooms and removing schooling itself from the civic domain.

Bruce Shapiro, a member of the Initiative for Quality Urban Education in New Haven, Conn., writing for The Nation.

Officials contend [the choice plan] would give poorer children an opportunity that the wealthy already enjoy. And they say it would force public schools to improve themselves. But some educators fear that choice would undercut those schools by encouraging the departure of students who have the most interested parents. And even Mr. Alexander can't say what the President's proposals would do for the early years that almost everyone thinks are crucial in education.

Carl P. Leubsdorf, chief Washington correspondent, The Dallas Morning News.

For all that the President's proposed 535 experimental schools might reveal about improving education, the fact remains that we largely know what makes a good school. A solid core curriculum. Discipline. Parental involvement. Teachers who have thefreedom to do their best.

Many schools--public and private--already have those qualities. The fastest way to create more of them is by holding their feet to the fire of choice. Trying to secure other reforms without choice will take years and consign another generation of students to academic mediocrity.

The Wall Street Journal.

In my interviews with nearly 3,000 children, parents, and teachers around the country over four years, I have heard this repeated theme: The most important issue is not the academic life of the student, but the emotional life of the child. Bush's proposals give only cursory attention to that principle.

In any true education revolution, public schools must be identified as the most important community hubs for families--complete with counseling centers, day-care facilities, and in-house and outreach parenting programs. Schools should augment the family, rather than replace it.

Richard Louv, author of Childhood's Future, writing in The Christian Science Monitor.

One reason past reforms have fizzled is that ordinary schools couldn't replicate the experimental successes of gifted, impassioned teachers. That's what happened with the "New Math," which seemed so bright in its experimental phase and so impossible in most classrooms ... But whole states full of ordinary schools are making [choice] work. What is helping them is the magic of the marketplace. Principals now ask, "Why are 100 students transferring out of my school? How can I lure new ones?"

The choice ideas should fly. Bush and his education secretary, Lamar Alexander, must chop off the dead weight of nonpublic-school choice and let the winds of competition blow through America's public schools.

New York Newsday (Nassau, Suffolk edition).

To overcome Bush Baloney and Democratic Dickering and really change American education in this decade requires a marriage of two concepts--taxing and spending at all levels of government, but only in support of a radically changed system that demands more of teachers, kids, and parents.

Thus far in the 1990's, the only certainty is that the bipartisan Establishment in [Washington] is not up to the task and is confident that the public will fall for the latest pseudo-initiative.

Thomas Oliphant, The Boston Globe.

Even before we examine each provision of President Bush's proposal to make our educational system more competitive, we should challenge the premise of his plan. The trouble is our schools are already much too competitive. ...

In most classrooms, students are forced to work against each other, competing for gold stars, grades, and recognition. The lesson that all competition teaches is that everyone else is an obstacle to one's own success. ...

Instead of more competitiveness, we need to emphasize cooperation, which research and experience suggest is far more likely to produce real excellence. One of the most exciting developments in education over the last decade is cooperative learning. When students work in pairs or small groups to help each other learn, they feel better about themselves, like each other more, and develop sophisticated cognitive strategies that result in higher achievement. ...

Rather than help schools move in that direction, our "education President" offers more of the win-lose framework that has left our economy--and, more to the point, our educational system--in deep trouble.

Alfie Kohn, author of The Brighter Side of Human Nature: Altruism and Empathy in Everyday Life, in an op-ed essay for The New York Times.

While the President wants each child to come to school ready to learn, there was only token mention of the integral part the family plays in making sure that the child is ready to learn. President Bush has endorsed Head Start, a proven success and the darling of preschool anti-poverty programs. Yet Bush has chosen not to use his bully pulpit to push other pro-family programs that better prepare children for the classroom. If the President wants to make a lasting impact on that other 91 percent of an American child's life, he must understand that the success of his education program is inextricably linked to national policies that give stronger support to working families.

The Los Angeles Times.

Bush's main weapon to influence change is to use the Presidency as a bully pulpit. Federal officials can--and apparently will--exhort state and local authorities to try out new ideas and find novel solutions to the ills plaguing the nation's schools. But they can do little more than that ... [W]ith the federal budget deficit hovering around $320 billion, Bush can't just throw more money at the problem. Nor should he. The 26 percent after-inflation rise in school spending during the past decade--despite a drop in enrollment--has provided little educational return. That's because a big chunk of the increase pays for a growing school administration bureaucracy, rather than teaching and equipment.

Whether the country's public school systems pass or fail is up to the states and cities. But given the constraints on his options, Bush surely deserves an 'A' for effort.

Business Week.

Giving bright, highly motivated low-income students more educational options is not only desirable, but imperative. Too many of these students are trapped in public schools that continue to operate despite poor performance.

But what about the less motivated, most troubled students, who are ill equipped to exercise choice and might be rejected if they did? Washington's emphasis ought to be on improving the weak public schools for them, or on attaching enough money to each student, so that better schools would want to compete for even the dullest and most poorly behaved. Unless the Administration is willing to promote quality education for all students, its plan will be little more than a publicly funded scholarship program for the bright and restless.

The New York Times.

Since the Bush plan shows no recognition of the need for additional educational research and evaluation, it implicitly assumes that we already know about how to improve the system. The fact is that we remain woefully ignorant about many aspects of effective schooling, teaching, and learning. This knowledge gap exists in part because federal investment in educational research has been miniscule, especially when compared to research in fields such as science, agriculture, defense, and health care.

How is it that the Administration believes that we need lots of money to strengthen national defense, science, agriculture, health care, and foreign policy, but we can somehow achieve significant educational reforms on the cheap?

Alexander W. Astin, professor of higher education, University of California at Los Angeles, writing for The Los Angeles Times.

Parental choice carries with it the promise of reform but also the threat of a debacle. Even the vaunted market system does not work for everyone, especially those consumers who can't afford to consume. Given the general reluctance of an increasingly suburbanized America to deal with the plight of the inner city, "choice" may become another term for "tracking" or ... dumping. After all, parental choice already exists. It's one of the reasons some schools are so good while others are so bad.

Richard Cohen, syndicated columnist, The Washington Post.

Vol. 10, Issue 36, Pages 24-25

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