Little Progress Is Seen on National Education Goals
With barely a month to go before the governors' summer meeting in Mobile, Ala., the states' chief executives and the White House appear to have made little progress in furthering the nation's education goals.
After months of difficult and delicate negotiations with the Bush Administration, the governors in February adopted a package of six goals and 21 objectives the nation is supposed to meet by the year 2000.
But they have made little headway since on some of the more pressing national initiatives they consider necessary to meet the goals. These include increasing flexibility in the use of federal funds; devising new information and assessment systems; and creating a bipartisan group to help monitor and report on progress.
Marshall Smith, dean of Stanford University's education school, has been following the national effort closely, alternating, he says, between highs and lows.
"This is a down spot for me," he said last week. "There's nobody stepping in and taking leadership."
Similarly, the Business Coalition for Education Reform, in a letter to President Bush dated April 20, said, "We are concerned that the whole effort will erode unless key actions are taken promptly."
One problem has been getting key players to remain focused on the goals, amid a host of other concerns. Thirty-six governors are up for re-election this year, including Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, co-chairman of the task force on education.
Meanwhile, President Bush has had to juggle the savings-and-loan crisis and a historic summit with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, to name just two items on his agenda.
"There are terrible scheduling problems just trying to get these guys together," said one governor's aide.
Since the governors' mid-winter meeting, Governor Clinton and his co-chairman, Gov. Carroll Campbell of South Carolina, have met only once with Roger Porter, President Bush's domestic-policy adviser, to discuss the goals. No further meetings were scheduled as of last week, although additional discussions were expected.
According to a staff member in the White House's office of policy development, Mr. Porter is in the process of forming an "education-summit follow-up group," at the President's request, composed of representatives from all the Cabinet departments represented at last September's education summit, in addition to other agency representatives.
Mr. Porter has also sent a memo to all Cabinet and agency heads asking them to identify programs and policies within their departments that relate to meeting the national goals.
But the governors and the White House still appear to be struggling over the formation of a national panel that would help to monitor and report on progress toward meeting the goals.
Gov. Garrey E. Carruthers of New Mexico said it was really a "turf" issue between the White House, the governors, and the Congress, to determine who would control the group.
A discussion draft prepared by staff members of the National Governors' Association recommends the creation of a panel that is independent of all sitting governors and the Administration. Representatives of the two groups would serve on the panel as ex-officio, nonvoting members.
Although the panel would be selected by the governors and the President, it would have a small professional staff independent of both groups, as well as its own resources.
The staff document recommends that the panel have responsibility for determining what is to be measured, and the specific content of each measure, in consultation with the governors and the President, as well as appropriate experts. But final determination of the measures would belong to the panel.
The draft also proposes that the panel recommend specific performance targets for each goal and objective, subject to formal approval by the governors and the President.
But the governors have not yet managed to agree on the kind of group they want. Governor Clinton has "roughly supported the notion of an independent panel," said his education aide, "but I don't know that I've seen anything that people seem to be coalescing around."
A spokesman for Governor Campbell said he has always envisioned that governors would sit on the panel, and that many of his colleagues agree.
A White House staff member said the Administration's policy is not to discuss topics under negotiation. But the aide added: "On that issue, both the governors and the Administration have gotten away from the notion ... of a totally independent panel, if you're defining independent as a panel that would be able to dictate resources or policy."
Mr. Smith, who has been consulting with the NGA on the goals, warned, "If the nation's leaders cannot agree on an independent group with any clout ... this whole thing is a charade."
The letter to President Bush from the business coalition also advocated the creation of an independent, bipartisan panel, authorized by law and provided with its own staff.
The governors are hoping to adopt a resolution related to the panel at their summer meeting. But one governor's aide said it might be delayed until the anniversary of the education summit in September, if an agreement cannot be reached.
"I don't think that anybody is looking at strict time deadlines to dictate a very delicate negotiations process," said a White House staff member.
But Chester E. Finn Jr., chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, worried that "a lot of decisions that need to be made of a concrete kind about actual information-gathering are in abeyance while people decide about this panel. And that could go on until it's awfully late in the game."
Even more important, Mr. Finn asserted, states must engage in the gargantuan struggle of altering educational practices so that the goals can be achieved. Several people noted last week that, while there is scattered activity within individual states, many states have not yet come to grips with their individual and joint responsibility for meeting the goals.
Staff members representing the NGA and the education task-force governors have been meeting to devise a strategy report on how states might facilitate meeting the goals, which the task force hopes to release at the summer meeting.
A draft of their work, prepared by NGA staff members, was obtained by Education Week last week. Although it includes some specific recommendations related to individual goals, its emphasis is on restructuring the entire educational system to make it more oriented toward results and to provide the flexibility for schools to meet the goals.
"[E]stablishing a restructuring pilot program, in and of itself, is not a strategy for restructuring the education system," the draft warns. "It is too small and too slow, even if expanded to include additional sites each year, and not powerful enough to bring about necessary changes throughout the system."
"The strategic challenge for states is to alter, in cohesive fashion, the policy environment in which all schools operate," the report asserts.
At a meeting with leaders of Washington's education establishment in May, Michael Cohen, director of the NGA's education programs, solicited advice about what strategies the governors should consider including in their report. At that time, he shared a set of general principles to help guide the strategies-development effort.
Leaders of national education groups who attended that meeting expressed some concern that the governors continue to focus on achieving the goals and not get distracted by the broader restructuring debate. NGA staff members are now revising the document before it is reviewed and approved by the task-force governors.
Meanwhile, progress in providing states and school districts with more flexibility in the use of federal funds appears to be stalled.
A bill introduced by Representative Peter P. Smith, Republican of Vermont, has run into significant opposition in the House Education and Labor Committee. Augustus F. Hawkins, chairman of the committee, has made it clear that he has serious reservations about the bill.
"I think the next push is going to have to come from either the Senate side or from outside of the Congress," said Representative Smith. "But I think it will come."
Members of the Congress continue to have little involvement over all in the goals initiative, however.
An aide to Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts said that the governors and the White House "really haven't wanted any help and they haven't asked for it."
Members of the House Education and Labor Committee were planning to introduce a revised version of an education bill this week that would appear to track some of the national education goals, but it largely contains programs and policies that had previously been under consideration.
The Congress will have to decide whether to fund the Administration's request for $20 million in funding for follow-up activities to the education summit. A four-page memo outlining how that money would be spent was sent from the Education Department's office of educational research and improvement to the relevant appropriations committees last week. It includes a number of new data-gathering initiatives.
Christopher Cross, assistant secretary for research and improvement, said "it's vital that we have those resources so we can get moving here." Nonetheless, many outside observers note that even $20 million is a drop in the bucket, compared with the cost of creating all the new indicators that will be needed to monitor progress on the goals.
The education community, meanwhile, has been largely silent about the entire goals-setting process since the governors' February meeting.
"The education community, in general, behaved abominably in its response to the goals," said Mr. Finn, "saying, in effect, and with a few honorable exceptions, put your new money on the table up front, President and governors, and then we'll decide whether to take your goals seriously."
"It's certainly clear that the national educators have been silent,'' agreed Mr. Smith of Stanford. "I'm not optimistic that the governors are going to be able to pull it out right now."