House Panel Launches Series of Hearings on National Standards
After raging through academic circles and surfacing briefly in the Senate in January, the debate over national content standards appears to be settling in for an extended stay on the agenda of a House panel with designs on reining in the federal role in education.
The House Economic and Educational Opportunities Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations last week held the first of what is expected to be a series of hearings on the standards issue.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., the subcommittee's chairman, said the hearings will help the panel "insure that we have established a framework for policy initiatives [that] allow for a federal role only where absolutely necessary."
Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Ohio, the ranking Democrat on the panel, compared federal funding of academic standards to the creation of the land-grant colleges, in which money was directed toward "a national concern without federal control."
The content of some standards published by academic groups has come under fire in recent months, particularly history standards that critics say portray the United States in an unduly negative light and downplay the roles of traditional historical figures.
The Senate in January considered adding to an unrelated bill an amendment that would have barred the use of federal funds to certify any existing history standards. Instead, they agreed to a non-binding resolution urging the goals panel not to certify them. (See Education Week, 1/11/95. and related story)
In addition to national standards, the subcommittee heard testimony on the Clinton Administration's flagship education program, Goals 2000, which provides grants to states and school districts that agree to set high academic standards.
Invitation to Meddling?
Critics complain that the program gives federal officials too much leeway to meddle in local matters. A requirement that states set so-called "opportunity to learn" standards or strategies as part of their Goals 2000 reform plans has been met with particularly strong opposition.
Goals 2000 has also come under fire because a separate provision of the 1994 law creating the grant program authorizes creation of a national body, known as the National Education Standards and Improvement Council, to review model national standards and standards submitted voluntarily by states.
Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., who chairs the full House committee, has introduced legislation that would remove the nesic and opportunity-to-learn provisions from the Goals 2000: Educate America Act.
Lynne V. Cheney, head of the National Endowment for the Humanities when the n.e.h. helped pay for standards-setting projects in several disciplines, told the subcommittee that she has changed her mind. The federal government should get out of the education arena, she said last week, because its officials are beholden to the "education establishment."
Others testified in favor of a federal role in promoting high academic standards, including Diane Ravitch, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution and a former assistant secretary of education in the Bush Administration; Pascal D. Forgione, the state superintendent in Delaware and a former staff director for the National Education Goals Panel; and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., an early supporter of national goals and standards.
"This is an anti-establishment program and that's why I'm supporting it," said Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said of Goals 2000. "I don't think you see the establishment lining up outside the door asking for standards and assessments to be imposed on them."
Several witnesses endorsed the idea of having the goals panel, rather than nesic, review standards set by states and national organizations.
"What is critical for the Republican majority to recognize," said Ms. Ravitch, is that without an independent review body "you are leaving all these printed volumes of national standards to the field that will embrace them."