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'Time To Pick Up The Pace'

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By Steve Gunderson
There is one educational issue on which all Americans can agree: Improving education is essential if we are to develop the highly skilled workforce necessary for our nation's economic competitiveness. Accordingly, the public is interested in how our nation can develop a competitive workforce while still striving for a balanced federal budget and a smaller federal government.

In the spirit of our Constitution, the federal role should be responsive to what is occurring in the states. In recent years, states and communities have begun to make fundamental changes in education. These changes fall roughly into three categories.

First, states and communities are benchmarking academic expectations to the best in the world. This includes enhancing the rigor and quality of the curriculum and developing aligned assessments to ensure accountability for student results.

Second, an emerging consensus is redefining public education as education supported by the public, open to the public, and accountable to the public, but not necessarily managed by a government bureaucracy. To this end, nearly half the states have passed charter schools statutes to allow a variety of individuals and institutions to provide public education redesigned for the 21st century.

Third, districts are establishing more creative public/private partnerships, resulting in private and public resources administered through private and public delivery systems. Such partnerships include private businesses, private schools, private foundations and quasi-public institutions. Without these partnerships, states and districts simply do not have enough additional resources to implement the scale of change that is necessary.

The District of Columbia school-reform act, developed last year at the request of Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, provides a model that builds on the best state and local efforts--both public and private. Unlike any other local school district, the school system in the District of Columbia was created by the U.S. Congress and is supported in substantial part by federal tax dollars. The federal government, then, takes on responsibilities for the city schools normally assumed by a state. Under the comprehensive reform proposal, Congress has agreed to provide additional federal resources not previously allocated for education. Congress is acting to save children trapped in a system that spends more per pupil than any other large school system while providing results that are among the worst.

The reform proposal includes assistance to the school system in implementing a "world class" curriculum, professional development for teachers, a ten-fold increase in family literacy programs in public schools, and improved security for school buildings in dangerous areas, among other improvements. Public charter schools--open and publicly accountable, but not managed directly by the school system bureaucracy--would also be authorized. An estimated $324 million in new federal and private resources would be made available over five years, more than 90 percent of which would benefit students in the public schools.

Despite this fact, and despite the urgency to improve the troubled D.C. schools, a number of interest groups mobilized a campaign to defeat the plan, along with the rest of the District of Columbia budget, because of their dislike for the Low-Income Scholarship Program, a relatively small portion of the bill. This program would have allowed local officials to provide low-income students with scholarships to attend local private schools or to participate in other public school options. The opposition seemed not to care that the District of Columbia's overall budget--including its education budget--is declining, because of its fiscal crisis. Just as important, they did not recognize that the overall effect of the proposed reforms would likely result in more parents, not fewer, choosing public education for their children.

The scholarships, which cost far less per pupil than is currently spent by the public system, afford more low-income families the same opportunity to choose the best school for their children enjoyed by middle- and upper-income families. Strengthened by the public education reforms, inner-city schools would benefit from competition, much like suburban schools currently do. But unlike a voucher system, no funds would follow students out of the public schools and into private schools.

Similarly, the reform legislation provides federal funds for a private organization, in this case led by national businesses, that would solicit business assistance for public schools. Private resources would be leveraged for a high-technology infrastructure in the public school system. In addition, this group would implement a regional workforce training system for non-college-bound high school students and 18- to 25-year-olds.

As a result of such public/private partnerships, some funds flow to private institutions. But there are broader public benefits as well. Of course, we currently spend federal education dollars for the benefit of students in some private--including religious--schools (more than half a billion dollars from the Title I program alone). Federal programs, such as day-care facilities, Pell Grants, and private school tuition for students with disabilities, also send public dollars directly to private and religious institutions.

The federal government's role in education is certainly not as broad or direct in districts outside the District of Columbia. But we still have a national interest in ensuring that federal education and training programs support our nation's economic competitiveness in the most efficient and least bureaucratic manner possible. This Congress is moving deliberately to consolidate more than 160 existing workforce training programs into no more than four block grants. We must accomplish this, however, with less federal entanglement in state and local decisions than in the past.

More broadly, we must rethink the entire federal role in areas relating to international competitiveness. This could be accomplished through the merger and streamlining of the U.S. Departments of Labor and Education and the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission into a single agency responsible for implementing federal workplace and workforce policy. Clearly, the current approach, with separate vocational, literacy, and education programs managed in two different agencies, makes little sense. The merger would also result in a more limited federal intervention in elementary and secondary education. The precise level of involvement is still up for debate, but the states should be able to take the lead in developing a new, bipartisan consensus in education policy.

The challenge of developing a coherent policy on education and job training for the 21st century may seem daunting. But we can learn from our international competitors; Great Britain recently consolidated its national ministries for education and job training, for example. While such changes can be accomplished more quickly in a parliamentary system like Britain's, it is time for us to pick up the pace.

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