Education Funding Opinion

‘Federalism on the Cheap’

By Bruce Fuller — January 15, 2003 8 min read
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School reform edicts grow longer—as state budgets implode.

Conservative presidents, in the good old days, would bravely do battle with Washington bureaucrats and sing praise for the rights of states.

Richard M. Nixon’s “new federalism” sent fresh funding to the states, encapsulated in deregulated block grants. The senior George Bush teamed up with the nation’s 50 governors in 1989 to spark the current school reform movement, meeting in Thomas Jefferson’s back yard, Charlottesville, Va.

So, the irony of George W. Bush’s emergence as a born-again centralist sticks in the craw of a rising number of governors and local educators. The president and his secretary of education, Rod Paige, are giving medieval monarchs a run for their money when it comes to heady proclamations—in recent weeks, defining for governors which children are achieving “proficiently,” commanding states to upgrade thousands of teachers, prying open suburban schools for kids fleeing the inner city, and ordering the nation to start testing preschoolers.

All this, as governors and local school boards hear the wrenching sound of state budgets imploding, like light bulbs dropped on a cement floor.

A combative tone was set just before the holidays, when Mr. Paige berated state schools chiefs who had questioned whether uncredentialed teachers nationwide could be fully trained in the space of two years. California alone has 42,000 such teachers.

No one disagrees that this is a severe problem, widening the achievement gap as highly trained teachers head to the suburbs for better salaries and tranquil working conditions. The question is how to get the job done as superintendents are reacting to budget cuts pressed from state capitals.

Governors and lawmakers return this month to staggering budget deficits, with states now a total of $49 billion in the hole and sinking deeper. The most troubling case is California, where Gov. Gray Davis will try to convince the legislature to approve $10 billion in midyear cuts, including $1.7 billion in education rollbacks.

Deficits in other states, such as Colorado and Idaho, are even larger than California’s as a share of total spending. New York is facing a $10 billion shortfall; the New York City schools must be put on the chopping block unless Gov. George E. Pataki decides to raise taxes.

As governors drown in red ink, we might expect the White House to eagerly stabilize the states’ fiscal health. After all, the demise of state governments will further drag down the nation’s economy. Every state but Vermont must balance its annual budget, forcing legislatures into political triage: Cut spending or raise taxes. Many states must do both.

Like Alice in Wonderland, Mr. Bush may find that his impulsive rush into policy adventure is tempered by an array of unpredictable characters, impeding his journey back home.

President Bush also needs committed governors to implement his ambitious school reforms. The administration’s hopes for raising teacher proficiency and student performance mean determined local efforts over a long stretch of time. Governors preoccupied with laying off state workers, closing down health clinics, or tossing toddlers out of child care have little time to implement the Bush agenda.

What governor or local superintendent is about to plead with suburban parents to accept a bevy of inner-city kids—to proudly advance the president’s aggressive school choice edict—while having to wedge more children into crowded classrooms and cancel any pay raise for teachers?

Like Alice in Wonderland, Mr. Bush may find in the new year that his impulsive rush into policy adventure is tempered by an array of unpredictable characters, impeding his journey back home.

To its credit, the White House has allowed Secretary Paige to set high expectations for how schools, teachers, and children are supposed to improve. But the president’s economic advisers are unwilling to foot the bill, sticking governors with the tab. Call it federalism on the cheap.

Two numbers place the federal budget question in perspective: $68 billion and $69 billion. The first is the cumulative deficit that states will confront this spring, according to the National Governors Association. The second is the tax savings gained by the top 1 percent of all taxpayers under the Bush tax cut this year, those earning $1 million or more.

The richest tenth of all Americans would reap 59 percent of the president’s $674 billion stimulus program, announced in Chicago last week. The nation’s governors would not be so lucky: Mr. Bush would cut state revenues by another $4 billion, stemming from the elimination of income taxes on stock dividends, according to the Brookings Institution.

After a fall filled with education proclamations, few doubt that this administration holds great faith in the power of didactic instruction.

Responding to several states’ initial responses to the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, Secretary Paige also chided governors and state boards for trying to dumb down what “proicient” student performance means. Every child in the nation must be reading and computing at proficient levels within 11 years or states will lose federal funding.

Secretary Paige opted to make a moral issue out of the plea for flexibility: “Those who play semantic games or try to tinker with the numbers ... stand in the way of progress and reform.” He denounced the “naysayers [who] have convinced themselves that some children are too poor or too different looking to learn.”

Yet local conditions do matter in certain cases. Barely one-third of all California children are performing at the proficient levelsince Sacramento pegged the “proficient” grade to a high bar, long before the federal act was signed. Because of a narrow interpretation of the act’s intent—rather than a focus on its spirit—states setting high standards will be penalized while those expecting less of students, but deeming them “proficient,” will win the administration’s affections.

It’s hard to argue that governors worry about kids who are “different looking,” in Mr. Paige’s words. Instead, the fact is that over half the children in many urban districts do not speak English as they enter kindergarten.

Or, consider the Department of Education’s view of classroom reforms that apparently don’t work: “It will stifle and hopefully kill them,” remarked Assistant Secretary of Education Susan Neuman during a recent talk in Stockton, Calif. A reporter had asked her whether new administration policies might inhibit “creative and experimental teaching methods.”

Few predicted that a Republican president, so intent on shrinking the size of government, would so militantly centralize school rules.

What increasingly grates on the nerves of state leaders and local educators is the dogmatic tone coming from President Bush’s new education pantheon, not heard since President Kennedy brought down the “best and the brightest” from Harvard.

The self-assured attitude contrasts sharply with the contradictions that are emerging from the White House policy apparatus. Secretary Paige will soon direct governors to write curriculum guidelines for all child-care and preschool programs, even though the administration has slashed spending on early-childhood block grants by 6 percent over the past two years.

Another irony is that the Democrats set in motion many of the forces that have brought us born-again centralization.

The idea of standards-based accountability put down roots in the mid-1980s, when then Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas led the National Governors Association. The first President Bush liked this very federalist notion of strengthening states’ authority to hold schools accountable, set learning standards, and assess student achievement. Then, Washington could deregulate federal programs and grant governors new flexibility to match their greater responsibility.

Jefferson would have been proud of this nouveau new federalism, recognizing that central government alone cannot build strong public institutions without vibrant and engaged states.

But the Clinton centralists decided in the mid-1990s to push for national standards and even talked of nationwide exams. Those initiatives were defeated by the Republican Congress. But polls continued to show that many swing voters—including pro-education women—remained eager for strong leadership from Washington.

Few predicted that a Republican president, so intent on shrinking the size of government, would so militantly centralize school rules—pushing now to define the form and level of learning that will ensure federal funding, who can teach, and which students principals must enroll. The labyrinth of regulations unveiled in recent weeks has gone way beyond the basic aims of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Little will change inside schools until President Bush decides to help himself by helping the states. Ideas are being floated on reforming health-care funding, which would provide fiscal relief for the states. Medium-term loan guarantees for states also could soften school cutbacks while not adding to the federal deficit.

Little will change inside schools until President Bush decides to help himself by helping the states.

Equally important, the White House should return to the basics of state-led reform. Yes, check the learning standards set by governors; ensure that testing schemes are technically valid and yield data informing parents and teachers. Then, balance federal guidance with shared benchmarks, not prescriptions, for tracking student gains, provide sufficient resources for states rather than jamming unfunded mandates, and allow realistic timelines for implementing federal reforms.

Another exercise like “Goals 2000,” in which none of the goals are met, will simply breed cynicism about Washington’s long-term efficacy in the education arena.

True federalism requires mutual respect and interdependence between Washington and the states. If the White House fails to grasp this historical lesson, the Bush initiatives will come to be seen as hollow promises. The state budget cuts and unsettling disruptions that are about to hit public schools across the land will leave the president’s earnest proclamations in shreds.

Bruce Fuller, a former aide to a governor and state legislator, is a professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is Inside Charter Schools: The Paradox of Radical Decentralization (Harvard University Press).

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