Education Liberty Bonds

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On Feb. 4 of this year, President Clinton issued a call for a national mobilization to improve the quality and accessibility of public education for every American child. In his State of the Union Address he compared the struggle for democratic survival and competitive advantage in the global economy of the 21st century to the nation's efforts to prevail in the Cold War, and he implied that he sought the same sort of public commitment to a shared purpose that Franklin D. Roosevelt sought during World War II. Now, as then, a president made it clear that the nation was in danger. But now, unlike then, it is the weakness of public education, not the strength of totalitarianism, that accounts for that danger.

Here is some of President Clinton's rhetoric in the 1997 State of the Union Address:

"[M]y number-one priority for the next four years is to ensure that all Americans have the best education in the world. ... One of the greatest sources of our strength throughout the Cold War was a bipartisan foreign policy; because our future was at stake, politics stopped at the water's edge. Now ... education is a critical national-security issue for our future, and politics must stop at the schoolhouse door."

The president enumerated 10 "principles" for his mobilization plan. Of these, only two were noteworthy. One--national curriculum standards and student testing--deserves attention for its extraordinary wrongheadedness and destructive potential. The other--reconstruction of the education infrastructure--is fundamental to the future of public education. Unfortunately, Mr. Clinton has embraced the first and cast the second aside.

Potentially the most important of the 10 principles that the president advanced was the physical reconstruction of "record numbers of school buildings falling into disrepair." Though it was not his first principle, many of the other improvements that the administration and the nation seek for schooling depend upon this reconstruction of education infrastructure. The "savage inequalities" of school funding in almost every state cannot be corrected in any meaningful way without first repairing the physical structure of schools. Giving "parents the power to choose" schools cannot be anything but a sham until school buildings become places amenable to learning and teaching, and attractive to those who would choose to work or study there. Even the improvement of standards--our expectations of quality for teachers, students, and ourselves--cannot be attained in any meaningful way without bringing all the schools up to code and adequately equipping them.

School reform cannot be attained in any meaningful way without bringing all schools up to code and adequately equipping them.

The U.S. General Accounting Office has estimated that in 1996 there was $112 billion worth of repairs and reconstruction needed just to bring the schools up to health and safety codes. To adequately equip every school with library and classroom books, teaching materials, laboratory, electronic, and other equipment might easily bring the total to $175 billion. But the administration's actions on this crucial matter have not matched President Clinton's rhetoric:

  • The administration's initial budget proposal called for $5 billion in federal aid to help pay the interest on school construction bonds. Even if the state and local governments were able to raise these funds--which they probably are not, given the school wars that consistently lead to the defeat of school reform and tax measures--it would take so long to make the repairs at this rate that those entering kindergarten now would not be likely to see any benefit before graduating from the 12th grade.
  • As part of the balanced-budget negotiations with Congress, the administration dropped the $5 billion altogether, leaving the nation's schools to rot for another generation, and making the president's other goals all but unattainable. (A separate, $100 million appropriation for school construction, sponsored by Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill., made it into the Senate's fiscal 1998 spending bill, but even this small effort faces an uncertain future.)

It doesn't have to be this way. If Mr. Clinton took his own metaphor seriously, if he really sought for education a national mobilization like that achieved at home during World War II, if he really wanted to try to make politics "stop at the schoolhouse door," he would scuttle the standards and testing effort and instead ask Congress to authorize the sale of $175 billion in long-term Education Liberty Bonds. Over the next five years, the proceeds from the sale of these bonds would be used exclusively and immediately to repair and re-equip the nation's decaying schools.

By leading a movement to rebuild the nation's schools, the president would be initiating a national commitment and building program of enormous magnitude and immediate benefit to virtually all sectors of society. He would be taking a giant step toward liberating public education from a host of physical and political constraints that hamper other reforms. He would be freeing teachers and students and parents to get on with the work of creating good education as they see it. He would be helping to create "freedom to," as well as "freedom from," for America's beleaguered teachers. And he would be setting the stage for a system of school choice that could bring about a truce in the school wars. (In "A Test of Our Progress," a Commentary in Education Week's June 25 issue, Michael Casserly proposed a Marshall Plan for school reconstruction. But the absence of a realistic way to pay for it, and the failure to call for an end to the president's embrace of the destructive standardization movement, rendered that otherwise excellent proposal problematic.)

Education Liberty Bonds would yield low, nontaxable interest--perhaps just 1 percent over inflation--and would have to be held for at least 20 years. They would be an "off budget" investment in the nation's long-term future, unaffected after initial authorization by perennial political haggling over the ideology of budget balancing and the role of the federal government in education. The sale of Education Liberty Bonds would especially be directed at wealthy individuals in the public eye (such as sports figures, Hollywood stars, multimillionaire CEO's), state governments, and the financial institutions, large corporations, and pension funds that will continue to profit handsomely from a highly educated workforce.

Education Liberty Bonds could be used to reinvigorate public education.

Investment in Education Liberty Bonds would become both the patriotic and the practical way for all Americans to support a clearly recognizable and necessary improvement of the nation's schools. As was the case during World War II, the president and other opinion leaders in the nation could create an atmosphere in which Americans could put politics aside and contribute to a nationally important effort while simultaneously coming together to agree that this effort really is essential to our future. Discussing the sale of war bonds during World War II, the then-U.S. secretary of the treasury recognized that America could "use bonds to sell the war, rather than vice versa." In 1997, as Mr. Clinton's State of the Union rhetoric suggests, we can have it both ways. Education Liberty Bonds could be used to reinvigorate public education and sell the importance, to our personal and collective futures, of improving schools, while the proceeds from the sale of these bonds could make an enormous material contribution to achieving that goal.

But if Education Liberty Bonds hold any promise at all for rebuilding the school infrastructure and enhancing the public commitment to education, they must be part of an effort to help rescue American public education from the school wars that have crippled it for years. Again, the president must take his own metaphor seriously. He must make politics stop at the schoolhouse door by reversing his call to standardize schooling. He should help us see that in education, one size does not fit all; and that at a time of great diversity of belief about what constitutes good education, the call for standardized schooling can only turn Americans needlessly against each other.

One has only to recall the battle over American-history curriculum standards in 1994, in which scholars and ideologues wrangled with each other like schoolyard bullies over the "official history" of the United States, to understand how destructive government control of curriculum can be in a constitutional democracy. Or one can return to the World War II era and a similar call for national unification through state government control of what goes on in the nation's schools:

"Probably no deeper division of our people could proceed from any provocation than from finding it necessary to choose what doctrine and whose program public educational officials shall compel youth to unite in embracing...." (West Virginia v. Barnette, U.S. Supreme Court, 1943)

President Clinton obviously understands the importance of high-quality schooling to the future of us all. And he clearly wants to and has the ability to lead the nation in a mobilization of effort toward that end. But in trying to create national and state curriculum standards, he has embraced a constitutionally questionable and ultimately destructive method of mobilization. At the same time, he has abandoned the struggle to physically rebuild the nation's schools, arguably the most practical and politically neutral means of education reform within the grasp of the federal government. Perhaps a more effective respect for the diversity of Americans' ideas of good education, and an adoption of the idea of Education Liberty Bonds, could provide a renewed opportunity to help "ensure that all Americans have the best education in the world" in the 21st century.

Stephen Arons is a professor of legal studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His critique of standardized schooling, Short Route to Chaos: Conscience, Community, and the Re-Constitution of American Schooling, was published in June by the University of Massachusetts Press.

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