Bush Plan: The Closer Some Look, the Less They See

By Julie A. Miller — May 01, 1991 10 min read

WASHINGTON--After President Bush ceremoniously unveiled his education-reform strategy, Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander told reporters: “Unlike many proposals that come out of Washington, there will be more to it than meets the eye rather than less.”

But after having a week to examine the strategy and question Administration officials about it--and to get over their delight at a President taking such a strong interest in education--observers on Capitol Hill and in the education community were virtually unanimous in concluding just the opposite.

And, while key members of the Congress have expressed a willingness to work with the Administration on a legislative package, and Senate Democrats signaled an interest in attaching proposals of their own to it, many observers predicted that the plan will face an uphill battle once more details are known.

“There’s just enough there to be good rhetorically and not enough for you to really tell anything about it,” said Bruce Hunter, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

“The harder you look at it, the less you see,” said a Democratic aide on the House Education and Labor Committee. “We know there’s no money there; the rest is pretty vague.”

A few advocates have blasted the plan, which proposes to establish a national testing system, create a “new generation of American schools,” promote educational choice, and exhort all Americans to get involved in the education-reform “crusade.” (See Education Week, April 24, 1991.)

For example, Michael Casserly, associate director of the Council of the Great City Schools, called it “utter malarkey,” adding: “If a superintendent walked into a community meeting with this plan, he would be laughed out of the room.”

But most advocates--as well as most members of the Congress--have been generally laudatory, or at least neutral, in their public comments. Most observers said last week that they would wait for details of the proposals before taking a strong position on them.

Several education advocates declined to discuss the plan for public attribution--an approach lobbyists rarely take.

“It raises some red flags, but it’s hard to tell just how exercised we should get,” one lobbyist said. “We want to see how this plays out.”

“Everybody’s been very careful to hold their fire,” a Republican House aide said.

Education aides from both parties said lawmakers were annoyed and frustrated when Mr. Alexander and other Administration officials told them in briefings that they had not worked out the details yet and eluded questions.

“I think we are being led along here little by little,” the Republican aide said. “It’s like, if you don’t buy this whole thing, you support the current state of mediocrity.”

Funding, Choice Criticized

Some aspects of the plan, however, have already been widely criticized. Even without knowing the details, many education groups and Democratic lawmakers said the Administration’s proposal to reward districts that allow students to take public money to private schools would hurt public education and result in an even wider gap between disadvantaged and middle-class students.

Echoing a sentiment expressed by other groups, the American Federation of Teachers issued a news release specifically criticizing a proposal that would allow Chapter 1 compensatory-education funds to “follow the child” under choice programs.

Such an approach “essentially destroys the bedrock upon which Chapter 1 was predicated; that is, to infuse additional federal monies into those school districts most in need of help,” Greg Humphrey, the union’s director of legislation, said in the statement.

He noted that, if each eligible child were guaranteed services, the $6-billion program’s funding would have to be almost doubled.

It is unclear how the Administration proposes to alter Chapter 1, which currently distributes money to districts based on poverty criteria. Districts select the schools with the most poor children, and students are selected based on educational need. Children in private schools must receive “equitable” services.

Many observers assume that the Administration plans to resurrect a Reagan-era plan to give the targeted children vouchers for their “share” of Chapter 1 that they could redeem at public or private schools.

Education advocates also noted that the plan calls for only $690 million in new federal funding, and said the new programs would be competing with existing, proven programs for limited funding. And they pointed out that the plan includes no proposals to beef up early-intervention programs for disadvantaged children.

Most of those points were also made last week at the first Congressional hearing on the Bush plan, where members of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee praised Mr. Alexander for his efforts but questioned some of the specifics.

Democrats flatly opposed the choice plan, and Republicans expressed concerns that it would be uncontrollably expensive or rob private schools of their character, such as the teaching of religious values.

“I think it could widen inequality,” Senator Paul Wellstone, Democrat of Minnesota, said. “I think it could really hurt public education.”

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the committee, said the choice plan would reopen “the bitter and divisive policy and constitutional debates of the past about public aid to private schools.”

More for Head Start

Mr. Kennedy also criticized the Bush plan’s lack of emphasis on early-childhood programs and its low funding level, noting that Mr. Bush had made a campaign promise to seek full funding of the Head Start preschool program.

At an appropriations hearing he chaired later in the week, Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, also criticized the Administration’s lack of support for Head Start and promised to boost its funding substantially this year.

Mr. Kennedy last week introduced legislation that would make Head Start an entitlement, which would guarantee funding for all eligible children. That would cost about $7.6 billion per year.

The Administration’s testing proposals have also received mixed reviews from educators and lawmakers.

The strategy calls on the National Education Goals Panel, a body created by the Administration and the National Governors’ Association to monitor progress toward the goals they set last year, to set “new world standards” in five core subjects, and to oversee the development of an “anchor test” to which other tests could be calibrated, effectively creating a national testing system.

The Congress, however, will be asked to approve the interim use of a new version of the National Assessment of Educational Progress designed to measure the progress of individual students and to provide data comparable at the state and school district levels.

Senator Claiborne Pell, the Rhode Island Democrat who is chairman of the education subcommittee, noted at last week’s hearing that he is a “longtime advocate” of a national test, and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development issued a supportive statement.

But others have criticized the idea, arguing that it would lead to a de facto national curriculum rigidly tied to the test, and that such tests would lead to greater “sorting” of students, hurting female and minority students who perform disproportionately poorly on tests.

A Testy Issue

Major R. Owens, Democrat of New York, worried at a hearing on testing last week that both choice and national examinations “seem to offer simple solutions to failing schools with poor student achievement by suggesting that the underlying problems have to do with lack of accountability,” but that the ideas are supported only by “minimal” research.

“We need to think very carefully before moving down a road that might lead to even more inequality than we already have,” said Mr. Owens, chairman of the Select Education Subcommittee, which held the hearing.

Representative Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, ranking Republican member on the Education and Labor Committee, seconded those remarks. Mr. Goodling, a former teacher and administrator, has repeatedly opposed high-stakes testing during his career, and questions the efficacy and fairness of choice programs.

Testing experts expressed similar sentiments, arguing that decisions about desired curriculum and how to promote equal opportunity must be made before tests are developed to prevent them from controlling the curriculum.

Marc S. Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, which is working on a national examination-system project, agreed that standards and equity must be discussed first. He also proposed a system of tests that includes performance-based measures.

“The object is not to sort students out, but rather to create a system designed in the expectation that all students, sooner or later, would meet a high standard and pass the exams,” Mr. Tucker said.

Congressional aides and education lobbyists predicted that testing would prove to be a highly volatile issue in the Congress, noting that approval for NAEP to conduct a trial state-by-state assessment in mathematics was won only after a pitched battle.

The observers also predicted that, while the Administration might win approval for a small choice demonstration program, the Congress was unlikely to earmark $200 million for that purpose, as is requested, and was even more unlikely to approve a program that includes private schools.

Aides and lobbyists alike said that they were intrigued by Mr. Alexander’s “New American Schools” concept, but that they needed more information to evaluate it. The strategy calls for an effort by business leaders to fund research on new ways to design schools, and for communities to compete for the right to $1-million federal planning grants to build a school that “breaks the mold.”

Revised Budget Outlined

The Administration, however, is only requesting $180 million for the first year of the program, Mr. Alexander told the Congress last week. According to documents he presented, they are also requesting: $21.4 million in new research funds, including $19.4 million for activities related to national tests and the goals panel, and $5 million to plan a telecommunications system linking schools; $10 million for additional adult-literacy programs; $52.5 million to establish state training academies for teachers and administrators; $5 million for staffing and administrative expenses, including staff for the goals panel, and $1 million for a commission to examine schools’ use of time and facilities, a broadened version of a Congressional proposal to study the idea of lengthening the school day and year.

Initiatives Mr. Bush proposed last year are also included in the strategy and the revised budget request. Awards for “merit schools” would be funded at $100 million, less than half what was proposed last year; grants for historically black colleges at $10 million; and grants to promote alternative certification of teachers and administrators at $25 million.

Mr. Alexander also requested an additional $10.7 million for the Fund for the Improvement and Reform of Schools and Teaching, which the Administration had originally proposed to phase out.

Observers agreed that, if the Congress were to oblige the Administration with legislation for the parts of its strategy that require it, there would be a price to be paid in the form of increased spending on programs such as Head Start and enactment of new programs that are Democratic priorities.

Mr. Kennedy, for example, has repeatedly stated his desire to work out a compromise package. And the day before Mr. Bush’s announcement, the committee he chairs approved on a party-line vote a package of new programs that would also increase authorization levels for existing programs and mandate a new--or altered--goals panel with representation from the education community, a proposal the Administration has vigorously resisted.

Action is less certain in the House, where education leaders have kept their own counsel thus far.

Observers said Representative William D. Ford, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, might be reluctant to take up the Bush plan the same year as reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which is a personal priority. Aides and lobbyists who have discussed it with him said Mr. Ford will await the Administration’s legislative package, which is due next month.

Mr. Goodling is also likely to bide his time. He is ambivalent about some of the Bush proposals, and is still smarting from the defeat of an omnibus education bill he worked hard for last year, observers said.

The Congress “will take it only as seriously as they have to politically,” predicted Mr. Hunter. “If the President can create a political firestorm, Congress will have to react. If he doesn’t, they won’t.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1991 edition of Education Week as Bush Plan: The Closer Some Look, the Less They See