As Cities Sign On, America 2000 Continues To Be Work in Progress

By Julie A. Miller — October 28, 1992 13 min read

SAN ANTONIO--This city last week became the first in the nation to win the distinction of being an official America 2000 community. To celebrate, the leaders of San Antonio 2000 gathered at “Rockville High,’' a fictional school that is part of a 1950’s town in the Fiesta Texas theme park.

In some respects, the backdrop is suggestive of the status of America 2000, both nationally as well as in San Antonio.

It is an artfully rendered vision of an ideal American school frozen in time, just as America 2000 is a vision of the schools of the future. For today’s students, though, neither bears much connection to the day-to-day realities of school in the 1990’s.

Unlike the fake school, however, America 2000--launched 18 months ago by President Bush and Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander as a “crusade’’ to save America’s schools--is a work in progress.

While it has had little practical impact on schools and is criticized by some as blatantly political, the initiative is held up as having the potential to provoke real educational change.

Chester E. Finn Jr., an informal adviser to Mr. Alexander and a primary author of America 2000, offered a summary of the Administration’s reform program to date: “Some parts are going famously; other parts have plainly been retarded on Capitol Hill; and with others, the bread is rising, but the yeast is slow.’'

San Antonio’s efforts put it in the forefront of the community-action portion of the Bush Administration’s America 2000 strategy that seeks coalitions of local leaders and citizens to commit themselves to the task of improving their schools.

Leaders in other communities that jumped on the bandwagon early--including Memphis, Omaha, and Lehigh Valley, Pa.--say they will unveil their “action plans’’ in the next couple of months. But only a few efforts are that advanced, and, even in those communities, supporters acknowledge that the initiatives have yet to have much impact on schools.

To be declared an America 2000 community, San Antonio had to meet four criteria: adopt the six national education goals; draft a strategy for meeting the goals; prepare to create an innovative “New American School’'; and issue a community report card.

Participants in San Antonio 2000 say they recognize that much hard work lies ahead.

They acknowledge that the first installment of the report card includes only vague, state-level data and that, so far, their plans are just plans.

“It’s been sort of a debating society,’' said John Moore, the chairman of the education department at Trinity University and a key member of San Antonio 2000’s executive committee. “I think our plan is first rate; the challenge is going to be putting the plan into practice.’'

Mixed Reviews

In the year and a half since the launch of America 2000, the national results of the Administration’s effort are no less equivocal. Among the developments:

  • Congress rejected Mr. Bush’s proposal for a voucher program including private schools.
  • Lawmakers also declined to earmark funding for the creation of “new American schools.’'

Mr. Alexander had requested $535 million to launch 535 schools, while also delegating the job of launching the effort to the private, nonprofit New American Schools Development Corporation.

The business-led corporation announced grants to 11 design teams in July. But the corporation has raised only $50 million of the $200 million its leaders projected, and whether it will survive is the subject of considerable speculation. (See related story, page 1, and Education Week, Aug. 5, 1992.)

  • Work has begun on national curriculum standards in several subject areas. But some educators and lawmakers are leery of the national assessment system called for in America 2000, and legislation authorizing a federal role in standards and testing died at the end of the 102nd Congress.

Meanwhile, the National Education Goals Panel continues to oversee the standards-setting effort without formal authorization, federal funding, or the full partnership of lawmakers. (See Education Week, Oct. 14, 1992.)

A Rosy Scenario

Mr. Alexander said in an interview last week that he is pleased with America 2000’s progress.

“I’m not sure we expected 719 applications for new American schools,’' he said. “I don’t think any of us would have expected we would have 2,700 communities meeting on one night through a satellite town meeting to talk about making kids first in the world in math and science. I think we have got a good start in getting the consensus for standards and assessment.’'

“Saying it’s all talk is like saying a Supreme Court opinion is only words,’' Mr. Alexander said. “Ninety percent of what we need to do is to change people’s attitudes.’'

While critics have charged that the America 2000 strategy was part of a campaign strategy for Mr. Bush, it now appears that any fruit it bears will ripen too late to help the President politically.

“We have to keep in mind that we are talking about a very long-term effort,’' Mr. Alexander said. “We’ll probably work our way through three or four Presidents before we reach these goals.’'

Nevertheless, observers note that Mr. Alexander has tried to turn America 2000 to Mr. Bush’s political advantage and that, in doing so, he sometimes overstates the crusade’s impact.

For example, they say, he often speaks of “more than 2,000 America 2000 communities’’ as if they all have plans in hand. In reality, many that have signed on to the effort have not done much more than accept the challenge.

In late 1991, Deputy Secretary David T. Kearns estimated that about 100 communities were making serious efforts. Mr. Alexander said last week that the number would be higher now, but declined to estimate.

‘Fudging It’?

“Yes, it’s very uneven,’' Mr. Alexander said. “What we’ve done is create an opportunity for communities, and we’ve seen some who have really taken it. In the end, the schools in San Antonio will only be as good as the people of San Antonio want them to be.’'

Even in communities with relatively advanced efforts, backers acknowledge that they cannot point to new programs instituted as a result of America 2000.

Rather, they speak of future plans and ongoing programs that are spreading as educators involved in the planning process exchange ideas.

For example, Maria Ferrier, who recently left San Antonio’s Southwest Independent School District to become director of the federal bilingual-education office, says San Antonio 2000 helped to broaden a program through which employees at Kelly Air Force Base serve as mentors to at-risk students.

“There were a few people in San Antonio doing these things on our own,’' she said. “When the President and the Secretary came, things we were doing caught fire because there was someone important behind them.’'

However, promotional materials, satellite broadcasts, and presentations at regional America 2000 meetings tout programs like Ms. Ferrier’s as the direct result of America 2000.

“One of the first things we want to do is discover communities that are headed in the right direction and point that out,’' Mr. Alexander said.

The Secretary acknowledged, that the distinction between local improvement efforts and the Administration’s political agenda “probably gets fudged sometimes,’' although he also denied confusing the two intentionally.

In addressing America 2000-related meetings, Mr. Alexander stresses the bipartisan nature of the initiative. And he acknowledges that a community’s involvement in a local school-improvement effort does not constitute endorsement of the Administration’s education agenda.

Democrats’ Reaction

Critics also note that the Administration has used conferences it has called on America 2000 to promote its political agenda.

A conference held in Atlanta in July, for example, included a session on choice that was dominated by proponents of private-school vouchers.

Some Democrats who support America 2000 say they are aware that the Bush Administration is using the program toward political ends, but that they think the need to focus on the nation’s educational shortcomings outweigh political concerns.

The keynote speaker at the Atlanta conference was Gov. Zell Miller of Georgia, who had delivered a scathing address just days before at the Democratic National Convention.

“No, I don’t support their agenda, especially on choice,’' Mr. Miller said. “But any way I can push education, I will. In education, you have to have a bipartisan approach.’'

However, political concerns have made some Democrats think twice.

“I was reluctant, because I’m a Democrat, and it is Bush’s plan,’' said State Rep. Karyne Jones-Conley, one of San Antonio 2000’s three chairmen. “It’s also a program of rhetoric, because there is no funding behind it.’'

“But I decided it is better to be involved in it and see that it focuses on the needs of the children than to just criticize it,’' she said.

Teachers’ unions, in particular, have been reluctant to get involved in an effort that has primarily been led by a Republican administration and local business leaders.

An informal survey of some of the more advanced America 2000 efforts indicates that most local unions are neither opposing or actively supporting the initiatives, although, in many of the communities, individual teachers are involved.

Teacher Involvement

Mattie Rivers, the president of the Memphis Education Association, is working on Memphis 2000, but she is not confident that her membership will support the plan being drafted there.

“We don’t have enough grassroots participation to make this work,’' she said. “We don’t have enough teacher input. It’s going to be hard to get them to accept things like a longer school day.’'

“Teachers just do not feel that they have been part of the process from the beginning; it’s like we were an afterthought,’' said Shelley Potter, the president of the San Antonio Federation of Teachers. “Maybe I’ll think about it when we have a new administration in Washington.’'

Others have also begun speculating about America 2000’s future if Bill Clinton is elected President.

Mr. Clinton opposes vouchers for private schools, but supports the standards and assessment initiative. He has taken no position on the New American Schools Development Corporation, or on the community-planning portion of America 2000, although his state has signed on, and 34 Arkansas communities are listed as participants.

Mr. Alexander said he thinks the initiative has gathered too much momentum to be stopped by a change in administrations, and Democrats involved with local America 2000 efforts also expect them to continue.

“I can’t imagine that they’re going to tell us to stop,’' Ms. Jones-Conley of San Antonio 2000 said. “I’m hoping that when Bill Clinton is elected, we might see some actual money behind this.’'

Leslye A. Arsht, until recently one of Mr. Alexander’s top aides, is also looking toward the future. That is why she left the Education Department to become executive director of the America 2000 Coalition, a new national organization that aims to connect businesses and such social-service organizations as the Salvation Army with local America 2000 efforts.

“We’re looking to establish ourselves for the long term,’' she said. “It seems to us that the commitment by these communities to achieve the goals is growing and will continue. And I think you can achieve more, have more credibility, outside government.’'

The Promise and Potential

The efforts of San Antonio 2000 illustrate both the potential of the America 2000 concept and how far it has to go to realize that potential.

Like many other communities that jumped out to an early start, San Antonio had the advantage of building on earlier efforts. Former Mayor Henry Cisneros had brought together a nucleus of activists a decade ago in a community-improvement effort called Target 90.

In addition, said Harvey B. Cox, the executive director of San Antonio 2000, the local business community was already discussing getting involved in education reform before America 2000 came along “and gave us a framework.’'

Mr. Cox is on loan to San Antonio 2000 from U.S.A.A., an insurance and financial services company whose chief executive officer, Robert McDermott, is one of the initiative’s chairmen, along with Ms. Jones-Conley and Mr. Cisneros.

Supporters say Mr. Cisneros deserves a great deal of credit for making it possible to recruit a leadership group that is diverse both ethnically and politically.

“For the first time, we have business people, teachers, and parents all working together,’' said Mary Jo Laughlin, the principal of the Academy for Creative Education, an alter
native school for former dropouts in the Northeast Independent School District. “That’s why I think something is really going to happen.’'

Educators who are involved with the effort, such as Ms. Laughlin, say they are already reaping benefits from the network it has created for sharing ideas and support.

But even supporters acknowledge that their hopes for an educational renaissance are just hopes at this point.

“I think it will help in raising awareness that this is a community problem, that we can’t do it alone,’' said Patsy Richards, a science teacher at Mark Twain Middle School in the San Antonio Independent School District. “I think I’m already starting to see a greater awareness among parents.’'

Building Public Support

Victor Rodriguez, the superintendent of the San Antonio Independent schools, said he hopes that awareness of the schools’ problems and their efforts to improve will lead to greater public support.

He noted that voters in several San Antonio districts had recently rejected school-bond proposals.

“Yet, for the first time, we are also seeing a great interest in our public schools,’' Mr. Rodriguez said. “I think people will support the schools financially if they are involved in planning.’'

Bill Fish, the principal of Lee High School in the Northeast Independent School District, hopes the focus on reform will allow schools more freedom.

“There’s an opportunity here for people at the policymaking level to give a green light to people in schools to try some things that are different from what’s been tried before,’' Mr. Fish said.

But even its staunchest supporters acknowledge that it will be difficult to put the San Antonio 2000 plan into practice. The plan, drafted by a series of committees, addresses everything from prenatal care to adult literacy.

It includes many proposals that are sure to be controversial, such as school-based health services, year-round schooling, consolidating some administrative functions of the city’s 15 independent school districts, “shared funding’’ across districts, and allocating more funds for at-risk students who often attend the most poorly funded schools.

A key part of the plan is a program called “Smart Schools,’' which was created by a coalition of local educators in conjunction with Trinity University. Among other recommendations, the agenda calls for enriched curricula for all students, “authentic assessment,’' interdisciplinary teaching, school-based governance, and choice among public schools.

Mr. Moore of Trinity University, who headed the “Smart Schools’’ effort, said that 30 schools are joining the program this year but that it “is clearly a long-term project.’'

“The point,’' Secretary Alexander said, “is that it’s starting. You start building a house with a few cinder blocks in the basement.’'

In five years, he predicted, there will be 10,000 America 2000 communities, thousands of charter schools, universal choice, national standards and tests, extensive private-sector involvement in schools, and schools that are “almost unrecognizable as schools.’'

“We know exactly where we’re going with this,’' Mr. Alexander said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 28, 1992 edition of Education Week as As Cities Sign On, America 2000 Continues To Be Work in Progress