Flexibility. Next to “accountability,” it’s the most popular term in the political lexicon when it comes to federal education policy. President Bush has made it a pillar of his K-12 agenda, as have Republicans in Congress and an increasing number of Democrats.
But figuring out exactly what they mean is complicated.
“Flexibility is a loaded word,” said Andrew J. Rotherham, the director of the 21st Century Schools Project at the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank affiliated with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. “Everyone’s for flexibility. The trick is, what are they talking about?”
In general, flexibility refers to the idea of giving states and districts greater freedom in how they spend federal education aid. The trade- off, proponents say, is a promise of results in improved student performance.
In the current political context, more flexibility will likely translate into consolidating many of the 40 to 50 programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the flagship federal law for K-12 education, into a handful of funding sources. The argument for that approach is that states and districts know far better than the federal government exactly how to allocate the money, since education needs can vary from school to school.
But many Democrats contend there’s a danger in giving states and districts too much flexibility, because they could end up neglecting important national priorities.
“I don’t think we should use flexibility as an excuse for getting rid of good programs,” Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., said this month during a hearing of the Senate education committee.
As Congress takes a second shot at reauthorizing the ESEA, after failing to do so last year, hammering out the details of flexibility may be difficult.
While the subject so far has prompted less controversy than President Bush’s calls for annual testing and school vouchers, it is sure to generate lots of political heat when it comes time to decide where the flexibility will come from.
Just late last year, several new programs were born during the final federal budget agreement, with the blessing of both major political parties. For example, President Clinton and congressional Democrats pushed hard for a school repair initiative, while Sen. Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, championed a new physical education program.
“Congress loves to enact and fund categorical programs,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a former assistant education secretary under President Reagan. “They can say, ‘I got X dollars for this program,’ ” he said. “It’s not completely different from getting a dam built in your district.”
Once created, a program is hard to eliminate.
“Every [program] has a constituency,” said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Council for Basic Education, who served as an assistant education secretary under former President George Bush. While he predicts there will be a political accord on consolidation, “it’s not going to be without a little blood on the floor,” Mr. Cross said.
The political difficulty of translating flexibility into policy is reflected in President Bush’s 28-page education blueprint, unveiled last month, which is somewhat vague on the point (“Democrats, GOP Agree in Principle on Federal Role,” Jan. 31, 2001.)
Mr. Bush would streamline much of the ESEA into six flexible titles, giving states and districts more spending discretion within those areas. While he specifies some areas for consolidation—merging the class-size-reduction and Eisenhower professional-development programs, for example, and the safe-schools and after-school programs—his plan for many initiatives is left unclear.
He also proposes a broader “charter” option, similar to the so-called Straight A’s legislation championed by Republicans in Congress, that would allow a state or district to consolidate most ESEA funding into a block grant in exchange for setting a five-year performance agreement. That approach encountered stiff Democratic opposition last year. The president’s plan does not say exactly what programs could be included.
Meanwhile, centrist Democrats, led by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, have carved out a similar ESEA framework—minus Straight A’s—that would merge most existing programs into five flexible funding sources. Under that plan, however, certain narrowly focused programs would be retained as subcategories, such as aid for migrant education, class-size reduction, and charter schools.
“We’re not going to go from 50 programs to five programs,” predicted Joel Packer, a senior lobbyist for the National Education Association.
This would not be the first time Congress has consolidated education programs.
During President Reagan’s first term, many categorical initiatives were merged into an education block grant. Since then, the number of programs has steadily climbed, and some of those that were consolidated, such as aid for magnet schools, became separate again.
“This stuff goes in 20-year cycles,” said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, an organization of large urban districts. “We consolidate things, and then somebody says, ‘I would like to put in a few dollars for this specific purpose.’ ”
During the hearing this month by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, several senators asked Secretary of Education Rod Paige about programs of special interest, such as for school repair, high school improvement, and dropout prevention.
“I’ve been trying for some time now to get some federal funds that were specifically directed to helping solve [the dropout] problem,” Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said. “Not just funds that would go to the state which could or could not be used for that purpose, because the fact is, the state spends a tremendous amount on education, and it has chosen not to make that a priority.”
But Mr. Paige appeared skeptical. “I am specifically trying to discourage the growth of categorical funding that goes to specific, narrow needs, which we think represents part of the problem, not part of the solution,” the secretary said.
That said, the Bush plan would create new programs for reading, charter schools, and mathematics and science instruction. And the president’s calls for flexibility are also coupled with new demands, such as annual testing in grades 3-8.
Some advocates of flexibility worry that Mr. Bush has put relatively little emphasis so far on his plan for “charter” states and districts, which would allow a state or district far greater discretion in deciding how to spend money, and where.
“I’m not hearing a strong push from the administration” on that proposal, Mr. Finn of the Fordham Foundation said. “I don’t hear drums being beaten.”
That’s unfortunate, Mr. Finn added, arguing that “the federal government’s proper interest ought to be whether the children are learning, not which school the money is being spent in.”
Yet Democrats clearly consider “targeting” of federal aid to disadvantaged groups of students essential. Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, has said he is willing to consider consolidation proposals, but not without such targeting.
“We’ve got to continue to address those needs,” Mr. Miller said at a January press conference, “and [ensure] that consolidation doesn’t become just another way to have general assistance to the states.”
Despite the talk of more flexibility, some analysts argue that existing federal law already provides substantial latitude.
“Many of the things [critics] say are inflexible are not,” said John F. Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy and a former aide to Democrats on the House education committee.
He noted that surprisingly few districts or states have taken advantage of waiver provisions or opportunities for administrative flexibility already permitted.
In 1999, Congress voted to expand the so-called Ed-Flex program to all 50 states from a 12-state pilot project. Ed-Flex gives qualifying states the authority to waive certain federal education regulations.
But a 1998 federal study found that participating states had issued relatively few waivers. And since the law was reauthorized in April 1999, only 12 states have applied for Ed-Flex status, and just six have been approved.
The $8.6 billion Title I program for disadvantaged students—the biggest federal initiative in precollegiate education—is among the most flexible in how its money can be spent. Permissible uses range from preschool to reading programs to teacher hiring. And schools with at least 50 percent of their students in poverty can use Title I aid for schoolwide programs, not just for the impoverished students.
Michael Cohen, who served as the Education Department’s assistant secretary for K-12 programs under President Clinton until last month, argues that policymakers may be missing the point with all the emphasis on flexibility.
“I’m all for flexibility,” he said, “but I don’t think that [a lack of] flexibility is what’s holding back performance in our schools.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as ‘Flexibility’ May Be Sticking Point for K-12 Budget