Critics Say Bush's New-Schools Plan Is on Fast Track, But Lacks Direction
By Jonathan Weisman
Washington--While the Bush Administration is receiving praise for moving quickly to implement its new-schools initiative, a growing chorus of detractors is questioning the plan's overall direction.
Among other questions, critics are asking whether the President's approach will truly lead to systemic change, why business is being asked to underwrite a federal policy initiative, and whether politics will end up marring the process.
"It may be moving very fast," said Susan D. Otterbourg, a New Jersey-based education consultant, "but it doesn't know where its going."
Earlier this month, the White House launched the New American Schools Development Corporation, a private, nonprofit organization set up to raise from $150 million to $200 million from the private sector to underwrite the largest educational-research effort in history.
Saul Cooperman, New Jersey's commissioner of education under Mr. Kean, will chair the group's Education Advisory Panel. Mr. Cooperman said he expects to submit the names of his panel to the board of directors by the end of August.
The corporation will use the money it raises to award grants of up to $30 million to three to seven "design teams." According to the corporation's literature, the design teams will formulate models of new "high-performance learning environments for American children." (See Education Week, May 8, 1991.)
Next month, the rand Corporation will convene a conference for potential team members to unveil a draft of the project's "request for proposals."
The final rfp should be available early in the fall, according to David Sandor, a spokesman for the corporation. The competition will be closed in January.
A Runaway Train?
But while observers are impressed by how fast the new-schools initiative has advanced, many remain highly skeptical.
Some of the sharpest criticism has come in essays by education experts asked to comment on the President's America 2000 plan. The compilation of 30 essays was released this month by the William T. Grant Foundation and the Institute for Educational Leadership.
The concerns, echoed in interviews with foundation officials and business leaders, have centered around whether the ultimate goal of creating at least 535 new schools--one in each of the nation's Congressional districts and two others in each state--would translate into systemic change in K-12 education.
Business leaders say they spent much of the 1980's funding programmatic initiatives that have shown little sign of replication. Many have since moved toward targeting policy makers to change the system in which traditional schools operate. (See related story, page 1.)
"Formidable forces, encased in the armor of entrenched bureaucracy, [will] defend the status quo of the existing 110,000 public and private schools," Siobhan O. Nicolau, president of the Hispanic Policy Development Project, wrote in one of the newly published essays. "These forces stand ready to protect their turf; 535+ new schools responding to a greater good will not compel them to abandon their defenses."
Observers have also questioned why the private sector has been tapped to fund what has been traditionally seen as a public--and specifically a federal--responsibility: research and development.
"Schools are a fundamental governmental responsibility and it seems contrary to enlightened public policy to have the private sector 'jump start' an enterprise which must rely on public support," Michael D. Usdan, president of the iel, wrote.
A Question of Politics?
Representative Major Owens, Democrat of New York, meanwhile, expressed concerns in an interview that the President has bypassed the Congress to avoid oversight and to allow the corporation to favor ideological viewpoints in selecting its research teams.
"Will they be able to offer rewards or deny benefits to certain groups that don't agree with them, that don't toe the line?" asked Mr. Owens, who said he spoke for other Congressional leaders. "Will they be able to use their research to discredit certain government-funded re8search?"
"I don't want to sound like an entrenched bureaucrat," he said, "but I see dangers if we don't spell some of these things out."
In response to such concerns, Mr. Kean said the corporation's quick pace has clearly shown why the private sector has been tapped.
Getting politicians to sign off on every step and conforming to Washington protocol would have already bogged the effort down, he said, adding that the urgency of the project would necessitate a bipartisan, broad-based effort.
He also said that the research consortia will be explicit on how models are to be replicated, and that at least one team's research proposal would likely include what changes must be made at the district and state levels to facilitate school-level change.
But perhaps the biggest concern is fiscal.
Observers note that, given the fact that annual business contributions to precollegiate education have hovered between $225 million to $250 million, corporate donors are being asked either to greatly increase their giving or to make deep cuts into existing programs to pay for the President's initiative.
Mr. Bush, in his Rose Garden unveiling of the new-schools corporation, said the group had raised $30 million before serious fund-raising efforts had begun.
But Mary K. Leonard, director of precollegiate-education programs for the Council on Foundations, noted that the lion's share of that $30 million came from corporations whose executives serve on the new-schools board.
Other grants have come from the Aluminium Company of America, whose chief executive officer, Paul H. O'Neill, chairs the President's Policy Advisory Council on Education; Xerox, whose former chairman, David T. Kearns, is now deputy secretary of education; and International Business Machines Corporation, which, sources say, is forming a consortium to bid on the research contracts.
The ibm gift raises still another question, Ms. Leonard said: conflict of interest.
Given the amount that must be raised and the corporate stake in the project, she added, at least the appearance of conflict will be next to impossible to avoid.
The huge corporate contributions have raised other red flags, according to Sue E. Berryman, director of the Institute for Education and the Economy at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Ms. Berryman suggested that, because the success or failure of the project will reflect directly on Mr. Bush, corporations will give large donations to curry favor with the President, thus making the project a "backdoor" campaign contribution far larger than the legal limit.
"These are very serious questions," Ms. Berryman said. "We're tangling on an awful lot of lines."
And they are questions that Mr. Kean admitted he has not had time to consider.
"We want to move ahead with deliberate speed, but we want to also move deliberately," he said. "I don't want to do anything that is irreversible."
A 'Pending Crisis'?
The "leadership gifts" the corporation has already received are standard practice in the philanthropic world, Ms. Leonard said. The corporation's fund raising will now get tougher, she predicted, noting that hard economic times have forced many businesses to curtail philanthropic activity.
Ms. Leonard and others also noted that the corporation's fund-raising efforts will undoubtably make the competition for philanthropic dollars targeted for precollegiate education keener than ever.
"I wouldn't want to call this a crisis yet," Sophie Sa, executive director of the Panasonic Foundation, said, "but we are gravely concerned."
A New York Times article earlier this month triggered a new round of concern among educators interested in garnering foundation or corporate support for their projects.
The story reported that the Exxon Education Foundation had cut back a five-year commitment to Theodore R. Sizer's Coalition of Essential Schools to one year, and, at the same time, had awarded the corporation a $3-million grant.
Mr. Sizer said the article erred in reporting that Exxon had cut back its support and that a five-year commitment had ever been made.
But he acknowledged in an interview that he has been discussing funding with Exxon, and that the foundation had said that, if Mr. Sizer's coalition received funding support from the new-schools corporation, Exxon's ongoing support might be revised.
The foundation's executive direc4tor, Edward F. Ahnert, said in a statement that Exxon would be "reassessing" its projects in light of the President's initiative. The Exxon Corporation's president, Lee R. Raymond, serves on the board of directors of the new-schools corporation.
Noting that President Bush has repeatedly pointed to Mr. Sizer's work as the kind of innovation he supports, Ms. Leonard said the mention of a possible funding cutback to the Coalition of Essential Schools had sent shudders down the spines of less well-known education innovators.
'We've Got To Have It'
The new-schools corporation has created a quandary for corporate officials who may question the initiative but who will find it difficult to oppose the President.
Alan L. Wurtzel, chairman of the board of Circuit City, expressed reservations about funding more research when he believes implementation of existing research should be the focus.
But, given the fact that the President has asked for business's support, he said, corporate leaders, including himself, would feel compelled to answer the call.
Others said, however, that they would not.
Eugene Wilson, president of the arco Foundation, said that, after a series of discussions with top corporate management, the foundation decided it could not support both its ongoing projects and the new-schools corporation; it chose to continue its support of already-established projects.
Both Mr. Cooperman and Mr. Kean acknowledged the seriousness of the fiscal concerns but said the project was worth the possible strain.
"My thought is that, although this seems like an enormous amount of money, if you look at the whole spectrum of corporate and foundation giving, it really is not," Mr. Kean said. "We ought to be able to do both."
But Mr. Cooperman admitted that such a stance might be predicated on a bit of wishful thinking.
Still, he insisted, money that has been spread out over a myriad efforts would be well spent on one massive "Manhattan Project" for education.
"God, we've always said, 'Why aren't we worthy of having the best sequestered for a few years to come up with some real solutions.' Now somebody is saying, 'Let's do it,"' he said. "And I unabashedly have got to say, 'We've got to have this money because what we have here is good stuff."'