Education Politics: The Real Clinton Education Policy

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Is education one of President Clinton's (few) success stories, as Administration boosters claim? Or is it another example of what the voters rejected in November?

As with so much in Washington today, getting to the answer means looking beneath the surface. There's often a gap between what is said and what is done. Administration officials privately acknowledge this discrepancy. In late summer, a colleague found himself chatting with a high-ranking but disaffected Clintonite. "Why do I dislike this crowd so much?" my friend asked. "Probably," she replied, "because the veneer of 'New Democrat' is so thin and under it is such a conventionally left-wing agenda."

Perhaps this will change in 1995, as the Administration scrambles to recapture the political center. Meanwhile, however, education vividly illustrates the canyon between rhetoric and reality. Senior officials chatter about local control, state responsibility, high standards, accountability, novel schemes for managing schools, decentralization, and parent involvement. Mr. Clinton ran on those precepts in 1992, and there's reason to think they're still respected by U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley and a few others.

Yet it's mostly a facade. When the cameras aren't watching, the Education (and Justice) Department moves to a 60's beat: Washington knows best, states and localities cannot be trusted, experts are sounder than parents, judges are wiser than school boards, "equity" is more important than excellence, uniformity beats variety, and novel institutional arrangements are suspect if the unions don't cotton to them.

The Administration's underlying education agenda has two parts. First, to impose a single model of school reform--they call it "systemic reform"--on the country. That model's chief inventor, Marshall Smith, a former Stanford University education dean, is the Education Department's undersecretary and policymeister. His strategy is top-down and producer-centered, focused on things like comprehensive planning, teacher training, spending levels, and additional school services. It pays scant attention to consumers, scorns parental choice, and recoils from anything resembling a marketplace. At its core is "opportunity to learn," today's jargon for mandating, equalizing, and regulating, all knit together by massive "state plans" that require federal approval.

"Systemic" reformers don't dwell on test-based accountability, save for federal programs serving disadvantaged children, where such rules grow ever more exacting as local flexibility wanes. They have scant patience with the notion that New Hampshire, say, might successfully pursue a different reform agenda than Iowa's. But they're at ease with politically correct fads, such as the slew of new "gender equity" programs and rules embedded in the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The Administration's second mission is to rev the engines of civil-rights activism on behalf of various approved populations and to subject as many education decisions as possible to federal (and judicial) scrutiny. Lani Guinier may not have made it as assistant attorney general for civil rights, but people who think like her now head the Education Department's office for civil rights, the bureau that handles "special" education, and the civil-rights division of the Justice Department. The O.C.R. chief, Norma Cantu, for example, pledged last spring to double the number of agency-initiated "compliance reviews" and boasted that "we will not wait for the complaint to be brought to our door."

And that's what's been happening. Consider these examples:

  • The O.C.R. noisily investigated Ohio's statewide high school graduation test for bias because minority students did not pass at quite the rate of whites. (The presumption, of course, is that unequal results mean discrimination.) Though a stiff rebuke by G.O.P. Congressmen to Mr. Riley yielded a settlement that let Ohio continue with its test, a clear signal was sent: No matter what the Administration says about standards, prudent states and localities won't develop accountability measures that might actually make a difference in the lives of kids or teachers. (Barring the use of Goals 2000 money to develop "high stakes" tests arises from the same mindset.)
  • Recent education moves by the Justice Department include asserting that a teacher's race is proper grounds for employment decisions, and intervening in the Kansas City desegregation case. There the Administration seeks continued court supervision of Missouri's second-largest school system even though there have been no discriminatory acts in years and residents of every race are now keen to restore local control and attend to quality rather than classroom ratios.
  • In his 1994 State of the Union Message, President Clinton surprised his own aides by endorsing private management of public schools, and his wife appeared to bless such ventures when she visited one of the Baltimore schools run by a private company. But White House jawboning did not deter government enforcers from responding to a teachers' union complaint that those Baltimore schools were not following every twist in the maze of special-education regulations. Maryland is now under orders to make all its schools obey every rule. Much as the Ohio episode fired a shot across the bow of standards-setters, so the agency's Maryland move sends an icy caution to those who would run schools differently. That, of course, is exactly what the unions wanted.
  • The Blue Ribbon Schools program is one of Washington's most popular and cheapest efforts to foster educational excellence: It bestows accolades on schools that do a terrific job. The competition for these awards stimulates quality improvements, and today essentially all schools in the land are eligible. Under a mid-1994 department ruling, however, future winners would have been selected only from among schools that complied with stringent new standards of handicapped access, standards now met by just a few (mostly new) buildings. Given the huge cost of making aged masonry structures fully navigable by wheelchairs, the effect of this requirement would have been to turn the School Recognition Program into a marginal activity that few schools could see themselves winning. Once again, the department later reversed itself, this time after loud protests to Mr. Riley from the school principals' associations. But once again, a signal was sent.
  • The National Assessment of Educational Progress is our best source of student-achievement information. The value of those data hinges on their integrity, but that is now coming under attack by the Education Department itself, which wants to adjust results to compensate for state racial differences and to "impute" scores for youngsters whose handicaps keep them from actually taking the test. Race norming, in other words, combined with imaginary scores. A September memorandum from Deputy Secretary of Education Madeleine Kunin ominously applies to NAEP--a sample-based program that reports no individual scores--all regulations concerning individual discrimination, and indicates that states, localities, and schools will no longer be able to decide which disabled and non-English-speaking youngsters may be excused from taking the NAEP tests.
  • No matter that voice synthesizers, recordings, and large-type books have freed many visually handicapped people from dependence on Braille, the Education Department has determined that Braille-based instruction should be used in the nation's schools. New "guidelines" will spell this out--and govern how federal funds must be used. (About 18,000 visually impaired youngsters are now educated with Uncle Sam's help.) So much for local control of instructional decisions. Then again, Washington has long prescribed the forms of "bilingual" education for children whose first language is not English. Why not blind kids, too?
  • The department is also gearing up to insure that disabled youngsters are included in all forms of vocational education, notwithstanding cost or danger. (Much of this training involves complex machinery.) Today's vocational programs are obliged to serve "special populations" only to "the extent possible." Forthcoming regulations will close that loophole. Compliance will cost far more than the federal dollars available, but what's one more unfunded mandate?
  • And then, of course, there's the regulatory explosion of the Goals 2000 act and the E.S.E.A. reauthorization, which intrude Uncle Sam into dozens of new issues from school-discipline practices to the agenda of parent-teacher meetings to the gender and wages of college athletic coaches. It will be a regulation writers' field day. These measures also undermine school choice (by, for example, giving "sending schools" a veto over student transfers) and pay only lip service to promising ideas such as charter schools and private management.

Federal regulation is like sediment in a shipping channel. It settles, layer upon layer. No single grain makes much difference, but in time the accumulation clogs the channel and makes it harder for vessels to pass. In much the same way, as Washington throws more shackles around the practice of education, the ability of teachers, principals, state, and local decisionmakers to alter those practices is curbed. Any reform becomes more difficult; the more radical the change, the less likely that it can be made at all. Once people sense that it cannot be made, most of the time they won't even try. The status quo is thereby reinforced--except, of course, for changes that federal officials want to make in it. And at the second echelon of the Clinton Administration, those are numerous indeed.

This sediment has been piling up for decades. By now there is ample evidence that federal rules cripple locally initiated reform. A General Accounting Office study, for example, notes that the regulatory apparatus of the Title I program discourages site-based decisionmaking. The need for state or federal approval of every action and the fear of financial and program audits dampen the likelihood that superintendents and principals will even attempt changes that would benefit their pupils. Though regulatory "waivers" may be granted--the Administration says it's keen to do this--here, as in welfare, it's clear that Washington is in charge and that only by grace of federal dispensation can a community or state run its schools as it thinks best.

Nor will a continuation of the regulatory strategy bring about the radical improvement that is urgently needed in American education. Even senior Clintonites know this. Shortly before she joined the Administration, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Alice M. Rivlin, wrote that "top-down management by the federal government is unlikely to bring about needed change in education, skill training, and other areas where reform is essential."

Rhetoric to the contrary, however, "Uncle Sam knows best" is the Administration's dominant approach to education policy today. Despite murmurs of "local control" and "voluntarism," Secretary Riley's debut before the new G.O.P. majority in a January House committee hearing found him defending the handiwork of the 103rd Congress and proposing no changes whatsoever. In this stance, the Administration is joined by most of Washington's vast array of education interest groups, many of which have bought into the "systemic" version of reform and shun the versions that would upset established apple carts of resources or power. They also welcome federal solutions to education problems. Their members crave the money, and their executives gain status and influence. Nearly all of them favor Democrats over Republicans, no matter what burdens the former may inflict.There's also evidence that, much as masochists enjoy pain, some educators secretly like to be regulated. It simplifies their lives if they don't have to shoulder responsibility for decisions--"Uncle Sam made me do it"--and can point to handy scapegoats for failing schools, shoddy instruction, and semi-literate graduates.

The Clintonites and their Congressional followers have been glad to oblige. Most of them have drunk deeply at the well of federal governmentalism--and not only with respect to education. We've seen the same approach to crime, to health care, to what passes for welfare reform, and much more. All start from the premise that whatever may be wrong can be set right so long as Uncle Sam gains a larger voice in essential decisions.

This is familiar stuff, the age-old statist approach beloved from Beijing to Berkeley. What's amazing is the vigor with which it's still being pursued by the executive branch despite ample evidence that it doesn't work and that people don't believe in it any more. Whether one is reading scholarly analyses, perusing G.A.O. studies of education programs, examining surveys of public attitudes toward government, or observing former "command and control" societies as they struggle to replace their failed regulatory apparatus with market-driven decisions, one sees that central planning, top-down management, and "gotcha" regulation have failed. So, for the most part, have large federal programs addressed to social problems in the United States. This is so well known that reports of President Clinton's signing of the "crime bill" last fall calmly quoted expert after expert pointing out that it won't lower the crime rate. And the very day the E.S.E.A. reauthorization completed its traverse of Capitol Hill in October, the Brookings Institution unveiled a major study by ERIC Hanushek and other economists showing the fatal flaws in its main strategies.

These programs won't accomplish much. They cost a ton of money. They make untold mischief. For a while, however, it seemed as if the Administration's dual strategy was politically astute. By embracing popular "New Democrat" causes like fighting crime and raising education standards, Mr. Clinton could co-opt these issues in the domains of rhetoric and symbolism. But by conducting the daily work of government according to "Old Democrat" precepts, he could please important special interests (including millions of educators), give free rein to the predilections of mid-level officials who never bought that New Democrat stuff anyway, and quietly trap in a tar-baby of federal programs and regulations anyone at the state or local level who might dare make a truly radical move to, say, combat crime or ignorance.

November's returns suggest that the deception did not work. The American people have glimpsed the Administration's true agenda--the compressed sawdust under the mahogany veneer--and most of them reject it. Change is coming soon to federal education policy as to other domains. In some, such as housing, job training, and taxes, the Administration is trying to regain the lead. In education, however, it looks as if it'll have to be dragged kicking and screaming by the new Congressional majority.

Vol. 14, Issue 18, Pages 38, 48

Published in Print: January 25, 1995, as Education Politics: The Real Clinton Education Policy
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