Week's Events Herald Debate on Federal K-12 Policies

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The appropriate federal role in schools emerged as a prime debate topic here last week, foreshadowing the discussion likely to unfold this year as Congress reauthorizes the main federal K-12 education law.

During a Senate hearing, three Republican governors urged Congress to rethink federal involvement in the schools by granting states increased power to exercise what they say is their explicit constitutional duty.

"Give us more flexibility so that federal programs and dollars complement and integrate with our state reforms," Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey told members of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee during the Feb. 23 hearing.

Separately, last week, a powerful senator proposed hiking federal education spending significantly, but sending the dollars straight to states in block grants. And a conservative research group issued a report sharply criticizing current federal policies and suggesting alternatives.

The calls for change come as Congress begins reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the centerpiece of the federal government's education policy. As the debate moves forward, observers say, a fundamental issue will be how, if at all, to reshape the involvement of the federal government in K-12 schooling.

Setting Priorities

Governors made stops in Congress and at the White House last week while in town for the National Governors' Association's winter meeting. They advocated freedom from federal rules at a time when President Clinton has called for linking federal funding to mandates on school performance. Mr. Clinton went so far as to outline his vision of the federal role in a Feb. 22 address to the governors.

"You'll hear some people say the federal government shouldn't be involved at all in public education, just send us the check and we'll do the rest," he said. The president argued that the federal government should both deliver more flexibility and demand greater accountability. "We shouldn't have a local option for schools to fail, year in and year out."

During the Senate hearing, Michigan Gov. John Engler, a Republican, urged senators to block-grant federal funds for states instead of setting categorical priorities on how to spend grant dollars. "I implore you to allow policy to be set--and dollars spent--at the state level," he said.

But Mr. Engler added that a "fallback" to a comprehensive block-grant program would be to create a so-called "Super Ed Flex" plan that would allow states to negotiate broad flexibility in applying regulations, in exchange for guaranteeing results. ("Competing 'Ed-Flex' Priorities Emerge on Hill," in This Week's News.)

In another twist last week, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., proposed raising federal education spending by 40 percent over five years. Amy Call, a spokeswoman for the committee, said the plan was still short on details, but would essentially involve sending the added money to states in the form of direct block grants.

'Fresh Ideas'

The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation also joined the fray last week with a report aimed at sparking "fresh ideas" about the ESEA and the federal role, according to the Washington-based group's president, Chester E. Finn Jr. The report, "New Directions: Federal Education Policy in the 21st Century," includes chapters written by scholars, journalists, and state and local officials.

For More Information:

Single copies of the Fordham Foundation report are free by calling (888) TBF-7474. The document is also available on the Web at http://www.edexcellence.net/library/newdir.pdf, requiring Adobe Acrobat Reader.

"The programs under the current ESEA really are antiquated, ineffectual, and in many ways harmful," Mr. Finn, who was an assistant secretary of education under President Reagan, said in an interview.

Diane Ravitch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Manhattan Institute and a former assistant secretary in the Bush administration, argues in the report that the most direct way of reforming Title I would be converting the $8 billion program into a "portable entitlement" that would allow money to follow a student to the school or tutor of his choice. Title I, the largest program within the ESEA, provides aid for schools with high concentrations of students from low-income households.

But proposals for Title I portability and extra flexibility in other federal programs are not without their critics.

Bella Rosenberg, an assistant to the president at the American Federation of Teachers, called Title I portability a "superficial market mechanism" that would distort the program's purpose. And although supportive of some flexibility, she said in an interview that the federal government has a historic responsibility to disadvantaged students that necessitates caution.

"Who can be against flexibility?" she said. "But there are a multitude of sins under that phrase."

Vol. 18, Issue 25, Page 34

Published in Print: March 3, 1999, as Week's Events Herald Debate on Federal K-12 Policies
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