Summit’s Promise: ‘Social Compact’ for Reforms

By Julie A. Miller — October 04, 1989 8 min read
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President Bush and the nation’s governors walked away from last week’s education summit with an unprecedented agreement to establish national performance goals and to engineer a radical restructuring of America’s educational system.

Said Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, one of a handful of governors who negotiated directly with White House officials on the two-day summit and its product:

“This is the first time a President and governors have ever stood before the American people and said: ‘Not only are we going to set national performance goals, which are ambitious, not only are we going to develop strategies to achieve them, but we stand here before you and tell you we expect to be held personally accountable for the progress we make in moving this country to a brighter future.”’

“If that doesn’t make this a happy day, I don’t know what does,” he said.

President Bush promised that he and his Administration would “follow up in every way possible” on the commitments made last week, and he called on the American people to join the crusade.

“A social compact begins today in Charlottesville, a compact between parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, state legislators, governors, and the Administration,” he said. “Our compact is founded not on promises, but on challenges—each one a radical departure from tradition.’'

“The American people are ready for radical reforms,” the President said. “We must not disappoint them.”

The National Governors’ Association’s education task force, led by Mr. Clinton, a Democrat, and Carroll A. Campbell, South Carolina’s Republican governor, will work with Administration officials to hammer out specific goals and strategies.

The process, which will include consultation with such “stakeholders” as educators, parents, and lawmakers, is to culminate in an announcement at an NGA meeting in February. Mr. Bush promised he would attend.

The joint statement released at the close of the summit said the goals will focus on ensuring that all young children are ready to start school; improving American students’ performance in international assessments; reducing dropout rates; increasing adult literacy; ensuring a supply of qualified teachers by improving training and their working environment; ensuring that workers are trained for today’s high-tech jobs; and establishing safe, drug-free schools.

In addition to beginning a goal-setting process, the summiteers agreed on the spot to launch several specific initiatives. They agreed:

To seek to change federal laws and regulations to give state agencies and school districts greater latitude in their use of federal education funds, in exchange for commitments to meet performance standards.

A similar effort is to occur at the state level.

To pursue higher funding for federal programs, such as Head Start, that support early-childhood education and the health of disadvantaged children.

To work toward “restructuring” schools by moving more authority to the school level, toughening the curriculum, promoting parental and community involvement, and giving teachers responsibility and flexibility in exchange for accountability for results.

To establish “clear measures of performance” and issue annual report cards measuring performance by “students, schools, the states, and the federal government.”

The agreement was forged in a session late Wednesday night and early Thursday morning that included John Sununu, the White House chief of staff; Roger B. Porter, the Administration’s domestic-policy adviser; Gov. Terry E. Branstad of Iowa, the chairman of the NGA; and Governors Clinton and Campbell.

Mr. Branstad and Mr. Clinton recounted how they worked until about 2 A.M. Thursday, then circulated a draft agreement later in the morning. It was revised during the day Thursday, and approved by the governors and Administration officials, who met in historic buildings at the University of Virginia.

Mr. Clinton said the most difficult part of the negotiation was persuading the White House officials to agree to channel more federal funding into programs serving young children.

The joint statement does not explicitly promise an increase for any particular program. But it states that the federal government must play “a leading role” in ensuring extra help for disadvantaged and handicapped children, increasing accessibility to higher education, and conducting research.

It also states that “priority for any further funding increases be given to prepare young children to succeed in school.”

This “puts the Administration on the record” as supporting such programs, Mr. Clinton said.

The governors’ other major task, he said, was to make the goals statement more specific.

“When we came into this, it was going to be a discussion with no commitment and no written agreement,” Mr. Clinton said. “We had to work hard to get an agreement on general goals.”

By agreeing to make a public statement, he said, the President “has taken on some measure of political risk just like the rest of us.”

The agreement was unveiled at a ceremonious closing session on the Lawn, a large courtyard surrounded by the original buildings Thomas Jefferson designed for the university in the early 19th century.

The President, Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos, and key governors walked down the steps of Jefferson’s Rotunda between ranks of colonial-costumed students bearing state flags and presented the document under picture-perfect skies.

Governors who stayed to meet with reporters after Mr. Bush departed spoke glowingly of the agreement.

“The thing that encourages me the most is that all the nation’s governors have agreed to this,” said Gov. Guy Hunt of Alabama. “Governors all the way from Gov. [Michael S.] Dukakis [of Massachusetts] and Gov. [Mario] Cuomo [of New York] to Governor Campbell, myself, and other conservatives were able to agree.”

Educators were not invited to the summit, but some came anyway. And those who were on the scene were pleased with the outcome.

“I think it’s terrific,” said Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “If we do get a consensus on national goals and a better way of measuring performance and reporting to the American people, we’ll be on our way.”

“Three months ago, you wouldn’t have been able to talk about national goals,” he said. “The governors came to a position they didn’t have a few weeks ago.”

“Now we must prod them to set some goals and do it quickly,” said Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Association.

Frank Newman, executive director of the Education Commission of the States, said the summit’s most important contribution was to raise national awareness.

“In the U.S., once you get an issue to be an accepted issue, after you get it up on the agenda, then things start happening,” he said.

But some of the initiatives in the joint plan are likely to prove controversial.

Relaxing federal regulations, for example, may not be embraced by the Congress that drafted them.

Democratic leaders were lukewarm about the idea when it was raised at a news conference Sept. 20. And efforts by Representative Peter P. Smith, Republican of Vermont, to push legislation in that area has been received cautiously by the Education and Labor Committee.

Some educators said last week that they fear “deregulation” could allow school districts to ignore the special populations for whom federal funding is intended.

“I think we want to be careful about removing all oversight,” Mr. Geiger said.

A move to create assessment tools that allow specific comparisons between schools or states is almost certain to be controversial, as such proposals have been historically.

Extended negotiations were necessary just to include a trial state-by-state survey in the National Assessment of Educational Progress in last year’s omnibus education law. And the law specifically prohibits district-level comparisons.

Many educators argue that comparisons between dissimilar districts are unfair.

“We need a commitment to equity, and until there is equity, I don’t want to be compared to the districts in the richer suburbs,” said Constance E. Clayton, an officer of the Council of the Great City Schools and superintendent of the Philadelphia schools.

Several governors addressed the issue, albeit indirectly.

Gov. Wallace G. Wilkinson of Kentucky, for example, said that national goals cannot be achieved by all without “sufficient funding for national equity.”

“This is one Democratic governor who’s not going to take a dive on this issue,” he said.

Samuel B. Husk, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, said he also fears the envisioned “report card” will lean too heavily on standardized tests, which he said are unfair to inner-city students.

The agreement may also find resistance at the local level when educators realize that they are being held to new standards.

Decisions on such issues as school structure are made locally, and for an agreement between governors and federal officials to be effective, they must persuade—or force—local cooperation.

Mr. Husk, who praised the summit’s outcome, agreed that “there will be pressure from the states on locals to respond.”

“A lot of this is persuasion,” Mr. Clinton said. “You have to be willing to give them flexibility and hold them accountable for results.”

Gov. Garrey E. Carruthers of New Mexico, chairman of the ECS, acknowledged more specifically that state officials might have to crack the whip.

“There are all kinds of penalties, like states taking over school systems,” he said.

Will the summit agreement spur more states to consider such drastic moves?

“If governors have any influence in states, absolutely,” Mr. Carruthers said.

Finally, while summit participants said repeatedly that increased federal funding was not a major issue, it was raised during the summit and is likely to become part of the post-summit debate.

Administration officials have said that they have no plans to increase federal education spending drastically.

Mr. Sununu talked at presummit meetings of redistributing existing funds, and governors said Mr. Bush spoke of having all Cabinet members report on the portions of their budgets spent on educational efforts.

But the governors persuaded Mr. Bush to make at least an indirect promise to increase funding for preschool education and child-nutrition programs, a promise Congressional Democrats are likely to remind him of.

And education advocates have said they hope to use the attention created by the summit to push for more federal education spending.

A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 1989 edition of Education Week as Summit’s Promise: ‘Social Compact’ for Reforms


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