Federal Role in Ed. Needs 'Structural' Changes

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Washington--After two years of control over the Education Department, the Reagan Administration "has only one major legislative accomplishment to its credit in education," says a new critique of the Administration's activities published by the Heritage Foundation.

Although the Administration succeeded in consolidating 30 education programs into a block-grants package, it failed to eliminate programs such as bilingual education and women's educational equity--which are ''dominated by ideological militants"--or programs considered "controversial," such as the National Diffusion Network and the National Institute of Education, the critique says.

Furthermore, the Administration permitted new programs, such as the ''technology initiative" to be created, while it supported the creation of a federal education foundation--a transformation that would "have no effect on the issues of deregulation, decentralization, or academic excellence," the document says.

The analysis by Lucy Phelps Patterson, a professor of social work at Bishop College in Dallas, also suggests ways the President can make good on the "core themes of the 1980 campaign." The suggestions by Ms. Patterson form one chapter of a book, Agenda '83, that was scheduled for release here this week by the foundation, a politically conservative public-policy research organization. The book examines progress made by the Reagan Administration in fulfilling the suggestions for reforming the executive branch that were contained in an earlier Heritage document, Mandate For Leadership, released in 1981. (See Education Week, Sept. 28 and Oct. 5, 1981.)

President Reagan has acknowledged the influence of the earlier book on his Administration. Several contributors to Mandate's education chapter were subsequently hired as officials of or consultants to the department. The contributions to the new book by unnamed individuals "associated with the Administration" are acknowledged by the author in a chapter footnote. Attempts to reach Education Department officials for comment on the document were unsuccessful.

Ms. Patterson, in a telephone interview from her home in Dallas, said she examined the federal education bureaucracy from the perspective that "we have a majority of functional illiterates who are graduating from high school. The problem is that we don't have the kinds of incentives in school systems to provide quality education to children."

Her chapter advocates tuition tax credits for middle-class parents, and an education-voucher system for low-income parents, as ways of bringing "a ray of hope to some of the most sullen, alienated, demoralized communities in the nation."

Through such mechanisms for "increasing parental choice," public schools would improve, schools would become less the targets of political groups, and minority parents would "have a realistic option to send their children to schools consistent with their own visions of the truth," the book says.

Ms. Patterson expresses support for a scheme that would transform the $3-billion Chapter 1 program for disadvantaged children into education vouchers, which parents could spend at the schools of their choice.

"Without waiting for Congressional action, the Administration should use the discretionary fund available to the department to finance a voucher experiment in an inner-city school district," the book says.

Regarding the tuition tax-credit bill that was approved by the Senate Finance Committee but did not make it to the Senate floor last year, she suggests that President Reagan should lobby for the bill in a "nationwide, prime-time television speech."

"If the Great Communicator makes the same effort on this issue as he did for tax cuts in 1981 ... he cannot lose," she says.

Other federal education issues discussed in the book include:

Budget cuts. The Administration should shrink the Education Department through "long-term structural change rather than temporary budget savings." The book suggests that the Administration concentrate on eliminating smaller discretionary programs "100 percent," rather than on shrinking larger programs, such as education of the handicapped.

It continues: "The Administration's budget proposals for 1982 and 1983 reflected a persistent failure to understand that the shape of the federal education budget is more important than its size. ... The Washington education establishment really has no coherent philosophy or system of moral imperatives save one: naked greed. It will fight with ferocious tenacity against any proposal to cut any education program by any amount. Since the Administration cannot and should not avoid these fights, it had best be sure that each battle fought is worth the effort it takes to win."

The Secretary of Education. Ms. Patterson's chapter assumes that the resignation of the current Secretary, Terrel H. Bell, is forthcoming. The new Secretary, she writes, should "halt in their tracks" Mr. Bell's education-foundation proposal, the technology initiative, and "redundant research."

The book criticizes Secretary Bell for "beating the drums for computers in education. ... Computers may turn out to be a genuine boon for instruction; they may also be no more than an overblown fad like the audiovisual gadgetry of the 1950's and 1960's," it says.

The worthiness of another of the Secretary's initiatives, the National Commission on Excellence in Education, is also questioned in the chapter. "The commission's very existence and its prominent place in the Secretary's speeches and interviews tend to feed a myth that ... we need more research to figure out what is wrong with American education and what to do about it," the book says.

New Federalism. "The Administration should move beyond block grants, which will allow bureaucrats and judges to tie restrictive strings to federal money," Ms. Patterson writes. She advocates a bill to "replace elementary/secondary programs with a scheme of revenue-resource returning. Some specified percentage of federal tax revenues raised from each state would simply be retained by that state to be spent in education."

Civil rights. Regarding discipline, the book criticizes federal requirements that schools maintain records of disciplinary actions taken against students. "School principals know that at any moment an inspection team from the department might come to visit, ask to examine those records, and demand explanations of any discrepancies in rates of punishment between different groups," the book says.

"This knowledge does not contribute to firm, sound disciplinary practices," it continues, nor "to a respect for the rule of the law since nowhere is this particular form of civil-rights enforcement authorized by formal regulations."

Vol. 02, Issue 17

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