The 'Loyal Opposition' and the Future of British and American School Reform

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To a surprising degree, American school reform has begun to parallel developments already occurring in Britain. As a result, much can be learned from the British experience, as Kathryn Stearns shows in her recent report for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, "School Reform: Lessons from England." The future direction of reform in both countries is less clear, however, because of uncertainty about what will happen if and when the major opposition parties take control of government.

By coincidence, such a change of government could happen soon in both nations. However, recent developments indicate that the "loyal opposition" in both countries have been revising their positions on national education policies and in surprising ways. What makes this development even more interesting is that, although school-reform policies in the two nations have become increasingly similar, the politics behind them have differed. Remarkably, these differences demonstrate how political parties with similar philosophies can pursue diametrically opposed policies.

Prior to 1994, school-reform policies in this country generally enjoyed broad, bipartisan support. British reform, by contrast, has been highly controversial since 1979, with the ruling Conservatives (the Tories) and the opposing Labor Party very much at odds. This has led to speculation about how much would be changed if and when the Labor Party--now ahead in the polls--takes control of the national government. Despite the heated ideological differences between the parties, Labor has increasingly, and to a remarkable extent, accepted the policies established in the Tories' 1988 Education Reform Act and subsequent related acts. Since one of the most controversial of all Tory education policies involves "grant maintained" schools (that is, state schools which, much like our charter schools, have opted out of the local education authority), the decisions by Tony Blair, the leader of the Labor Party, and one of his "shadow ministers," Harriet Harman, to send their own children to grant-maintained schools (and some of the most elite ones at that) have made the party's position on education policy even more uncertain.

In the United States, while the Democrats, pending the outcome of November's elections, still control the White House, the Republicans have enjoyed control of both houses of Congress since November 1994. Because the conservative wing of the Republican Party has gained control, many features of government policy have been challenged and changed. The bipartisanship characterizing education policy prior to the 1994 midterm elections suddenly evaporated, as the moderate Republicans who provided this support are now less influential. As a consequence, the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, passed in March 1994, has been under constant attack and threat of repeal. Since this act--an outgrowth of President Bush's America 2000 strategy--represents the most striking example of American bipartisanship in education policy, and holds substantial promise for the improvement of American education, its demise would be traumatic. It is thus ironic that America could see more change in its education policy than Britain as a result of the "loyal opposition" gaining power.

The major political parties in Britain and the United States parallel each other in many ways: Conservatives and Republicans have much in common, as the amicable cooperation between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan demonstrated. Likewise, Labor and the Democrats are inclined toward similar philosophies. But since the mid-1970s, the decline of public faith in the welfare state and the growing ascendance of conservative beliefs have forced both the Labor and Democratic parties to try to reinvent themselves to compete more effectively for middle-class voters. Indeed, efforts by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton to create, respectively, the "New Labor" and "New Democrats" have led some of their supporters to feel that they have moved too far to the right.

These trends, along with what Stephen Ball has called a public "discourse of derision," have delegitimized "progressive education" policies in both Britain and the United States and changed the focus of the policy debate. Clearly, ideology and debate over education policy have developed in both countries along a number of parallel lines, despite many significant differences in social and political context.

Given these parallels, what have the responses of both countries' opposition parties been to developments in education policy? In broad terms, the issues they confront revolve around (1) how much the government or the market should shape education policy, and (2) the proper relationship between central and local (or state) government.

While both the Tories in the United Kingdom and the Republicans in the United States share many views and values, they differ dramatically in their attitude toward a strong central government. This difference illuminates important dimensions of the politics of both nations. In the United States, Republicans favor the least government possible and wish to see as many aspects as possible of the federal role returned to the states and local governments (or simply left undone). The government most feared by Americans today is the federal government.

In stark contrast to the Republicans' deep faith in local government, the Tories--and especially the Thatcherites--seem to mistrust local government and have dramatically increased the powers of central government, especially in education policy. Of course, differences between Britain and the United States in political history and in the structure of government account for this contrast. From the Tory point of view, local municipal councils and local education authorities in England and Wales have far too often been under the control of the Labor Party. As Conservatives see it, Labor governments (at whatever level) tend to be wasteful, big spenders, and also political impediments to the realization of Conservative goals--especially, the dream of a simultaneous restoration and renewal of traditional British society, one that this time is embedded in an "enterprise culture." Hence, it follows that strategies to weaken local government have been a leading motif of the Conservatives.

Thus, the Tories have accompanied measures for devolution in education with extensive and, some contend, overriding central controls that Republicans would find unthinkable. For example, critics argue that the Tory education policies (especially the national curriculum; local management of schools; parental choice of schools with funding following the students; centrally controlled funding formulas; and the undermining of the local education authorities) have virtually destroyed the democratic local governance of education.

Of course, Conservatives rightly contend that this view utterly disregards the democratic input of locally elected and appointed "school governors" and school staff to the governance of each state school under the policy of local management of schools. But decisionmakers at the school site are viewed by critics as having too narrow a perspective on the public interest, and as being too circumscribed by national regulations, to be able to govern in a truly democratic fashion in the interest of the broader community, something they presume local education authorities can, or at any rate, ought to do. A dilemma dividing the Labor Party, however, is how it should balance its traditional commitment to equity among schools and students against the diversity and potential for inequality associated with public acceptance of local management of schools, school choice, and grant-maintained schools.

In this country, the attitude of the loyal opposition toward local and national government is best seen by examining reactions to Goals 2000. By encouraging the 50 states to voluntarily adopt rigorous standards and curriculum frameworks related to eight national education goals, and to link them to a strong testing or performance-assessment system, Goals 2000 seeks higher student learning outcomes for all children.

Since the 1994 elections, the Goals 2000 Act has been increasingly demonized by right-wing Americans, some of whom seem determined to revive what Richard Hofstadter called the "paranoid style in American politics." Although the act is replete with references to the voluntary nature of states' participation in the program, the old bugaboo of fear of federal control of education (for example, in selecting curriculum, controlling standards and testing, and using the coercive potential of federal funds) has plagued Goals 2000 and caused some of its provisions to be dead on arrival. Progress in implementing the objectives of the legislation has been very slow; a few states have even refused to accept the federal funds to participate. And extremists on the religious right are continuing a well-organized campaign to undermine support for the act, by claiming that it seeks to impose alien values and beliefs on children in violation of the rights of parents.

Pending the outcome of next month's elections, the Republicans remain in partial control of our federal government. In Britain, Labor still must prove it can again win control of Parliament. With control of Congress, the Republicans already have modified Democratic policies and enacted some of their own preferred policies. While we wait to see what Labor will actually do if it gains power, the Republicans now face the test of making good on their claims that many federal responsibilities can be sent home to the states, and that we do not need a federally led, comprehensive school-reform plan. Like the splits within the Labor Party over how to deal with comprehensive-vs.-selective schooling and grant-maintained schools, the Republicans face divisions within their ranks over national standards and comprehensive or "systemic" school reform. Corporate leaders, whom Republicans tend to count as their own, very much see the need for national standards and systemic reform, but many rank-and-file Republicans are suspicious of these efforts. It is not clear how Republican strategists will manage this tension.

In the divergence between the Republicans and Tories, we can see why there is a case to be made for a balanced partnership between local (state) and national government, rather than tipping heavily toward one or the other. Ironically, the long-standing mistrust of strong central governments by Republicans and, indeed, by many Americans came, in the first instance, from our unfortunate Colonial experiences with unresponsive and arbitrary British governors. Perhaps the differences we see today between Tories and Republicans are only modern re-enactments of the roles their forebears learned in Colonial times, with the Republicans resisting central government and the Tories merrily subjugating unruly bits of the United Kingdom.

Vol. 16, Issue 08, Pages 32, 36

Published in Print: October 23, 1996, as The 'Loyal Opposition' and the Future of British and American School Reform
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