When Secretary of Education Rod Paige was asked about the fatal shootings this month at Santana High School in California, he named character education as one approach that might help avert such incidents.
“Under the president’s plan, there is going to be an increase in character education in our schools,” he said in a March 11 interview on the CBS News program “Face the Nation.”
“That is going to make a big difference,” the secretary said.
Mr. Paige was picking up on a theme President Bush has emphasized since early in his campaign for the White House. The president wants to triple federal funding for character education, which seeks to foster moral character and civic virtue in young people, to about $25 million a year.
Mr. Bush is sure to find some sympathy for his plans on Capitol Hill. Two bipartisan bills have been introduced in the House to bolster character education, with another in the Senate.
“Our schools may be built with the bricks of English, math, and science, but character education certainly is the mortar,” Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., said last month in support of a bill he has co-sponsored with Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M, the chairman of the Budget Committee.
The existing federal initiative, called the Partnerships in Character Education Pilot Projects Program, was created in 1994 as part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Under that program, the Department of Education issued about $36 million in grants to 37 states through fiscal 2000, according to David Thomas, a department spokesman. Another $8 million will be spent for that purpose this fiscal year.
States that receive the grants are expected to form partnerships with school districts to set up character education programs. The money is used to prepare curriculum materials, provide teacher training, gauge and build community consensus on values, and help integrate character education into the broader curriculum.
More Research Sought
The Senate legislation, S 311, would quintuple the annual authorization level for such grants, from $10 million to $50 million. In addition, up to 5 percent of the money would be set aside for research and to disseminate information about character education.
While supporters are encouraged by the bipartisan backing for including such legislation in the ESEA bill Congress is hoping to finish this year, that inclusion is not a sure thing.
Lawmakers also appear intent on consolidating many federal education programs into a smaller set of more flexible initiatives. The Senate education committee approved an ESEA bill this month that did just that, excluding the character education proposal. The bill would, however, authorize a general $50 million fund that could be spent on character education, among a host of other purposes.
Sens. Domenici and Dodd intend to offer their proposal as an amendment when the bill reaches the Senate floor. Meanwhile, a working draft of the ESEA reauthorization put together by Republicans on the House education committee contains provisions for character education.
Diane G. Berreth, the deputy executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, based in Alexandria, Va., suggests that the federal government can play several important roles in character education, from providing seed money for programs to supporting research and even funding a national clearinghouse. She noted that another vital role doesn’t cost a dime: the bully pulpit.
And in that regard, she said she was pleased to hear the new president and his education secretary stress that character education belongs in schools. “Helping Americans engage in the dialogue ... is a significant commitment in and of itself,” she said.
While she is encouraged by the proposed legislation, Ms. Berreth added, she believes it should not spell out the specific character traits that schools should try to foster. The Senate bill, echoing existing law, would require that programs emphasize caring, civic virtue and citizenship, justice and fairness, respect, responsibility, and trustworthiness. Other character traits could be added at the discretion of grant recipients.
“I recommend that the selection of core moral values be a local process rather than specified in federal legislation,” Ms. Berreth said.
Patricia J. Harned, the director of character development for the Washington-based Ethics Resource Center, said the research part of legislation in both the House and Senate would help fill a void.
“So far, no one has made any effort to figure out how many schools are really doing this,” she said. “And what are they doing, and what are they finding.”
Andrea L. Grenadier, the director of communications for the Character Education Partnership, a nonpartisan Washington coalition of organizations and individuals, said she was pleased with the growing interest in character education, not just from politicians, but also from parents and educators.
“If anything, our time has really come,” she said.
But she also cautioned that when people talk about character education, they often can mean very different things. “I think it can be a double-edged sword,” Ms. Grenadier said, suggesting that words such as “morals” have become loaded terms.
“What we’re talking about is nonpartisan and nonsectarian,” she said. “I’m not quite sure I know what [the president] means.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as Politicians Stand Up For Character Education Measures