Ed-Tech Policy Opinion

Whither the Education Wars?

June 20, 2001 7 min read
Who could oppose reading improvement or more money for Title I?

Until campaign 2000, the federal role in elementary and secondary education belonged to the Democrats. And if academic history didn’t support the claim—Abraham Lincoln began the federal role when he created an office to gather education statistics—popular thinking certainly bolstered it. George W. Bush turned the tables when he embraced education with a vengeance. And with the exception of his modest voucher proposal for failing schools, his plan appears to enjoy widespread, even bipartisan support. Who could oppose reading improvement or more money for Title I? The only criticism of consequence seems to be the Democrats’ insistence that he is asking for too little money. Such are the ways of Washington.

It wasn’t long ago that Republicans repudiated a federal role—President Reagan sent the Congress education budgets so small that House leaders declared them Dead on Arrival. When the Congress sent Mr. Reagan the biggest education budget in history, he reluctantly signed it (which permitted him to run for a second term as the president who spent more on education than any of his predecessors!). Mr. Reagan also tried—unsuccessfully—to find an author for legislation that would remove the U.S. Department of Education’s Cabinet status, a quixotic quest if ever there was one.

The important fact is that the nation’s governors of all parties have rolled up their sleeves and taken on education issues.

It fell to Bob Dole, in his 1996 bid for the presidency, to take on the teachers’ unions, at least rhetorically, which was a spectacular nonstarter. And it has fallen to President Bush to see the error of those ways, and artfully appeal to the Democrat’s penchant for big spending with the Republican’s passion for flexibility. Indeed, it looks like a win-win formula, for several reasons.

Most important is the emergence of governors who understand that education is the linchpin of the modern economy. Pennsylvania’s Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican, is one exemplar, earmarking substantial public funds for education technology projects. He is determined to shake the coal dust from Pennsylvanians’ feet as they usher in a high-tech future.

At the other end of the country, California’s Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, is proposing a massive information-technology initiative. Although his proposal sounds modest at a cost of roughly $3 a student, with more than 6 million public school students in the state (and 600,000 private school students), the total is big even by Washington standards.

The important fact is that the nation’s governors of all parties (Maine’s Gov. Angus King and Minnesota’s Gov. Jesse Ventura are neither Democratic nor Republican, but are also big on education) have rolled up their sleeves and taken on education issues. And as they take education seriously, they get good at it. The old bromide that Washington knows best rings more hollow than ever.

Truth be told, education is a national issue, a state responsibility, and a local activity. President Bush’s insight is to offer an education reform package that honors this triptych.

All Mr. Bush needs to do to make his mark as a real education president is to thread the school choice needle. Vouchers, to many Democrats, are a deal- breaker. The absence of vouchers, on the other hand, is a deal-breaker to many conservatives. Is there middle ground? Making Title I money available for after- school tutoring has made the news, but it is thin gruel. A more robust vehicle already exists: the E-rate, perhaps the least well-known, yet in some ways the most important education program of the past decade. (That it is not housed in the Department of Education but in the Federal Communications Commission may be the secret of its vitality.)

Truth be told, education is a national issue, a state responsibility, and a local activity.

Financed by a surcharge on your phone bill, the E-rate has already provided $6 billion for high-tech infrastructure in poor schools, public and private alike. Originally opposed by the “telcoms” as a hidden tax, its structure provides a way to extend choice to poor children of all regions and all religions. Because E-rate funds are not generated by a tax, they raise no issues of church-state separation. Neither do the things the E-rate underwrites—hardware infrastructure. In a non-E-rate case, the U.S. Supreme Court has already found public provision of computers constitutional. What clouds the church-state relationship is content. It has always been constitutional to use public funds to build roads in front of Roman Catholic churches and Jewish synagogues (and to provide police and fire protection). What is impermissible is state sponsorship of religious observance.

The E-rate has proven its utility to date: It has wired the nation’s schools. Three major changes could make it as important in the new decade as it was in the last:

First, use E-rate funds to give poor kids remote access to Internet service providers, or ISPs, from home (or kiosks in churches, malls, and storefronts).

Second, give them “dumb terminals,” or WEBpliances (as they are called in the jargon of the trade). A WEBpliance is simply a screen, keyboard, and browser to get you to the World Wide Web. Without the cost or bulk of a PC or laptop, a WEBpliance is High-Tech Lite. You can buy them in bulk for a few hundred dollars each, and all you need is access to the Internet. Computer programs—word processing and spreadsheets, for example—can be accessed on the Web, and students can store their files in digital storage lockers (they already know how to use Napster, so there’s no learning curve). And PDAs, or personal digital assistants, such as Palm devices, are waiting in the wings.

For the truly frugal, you don’t even need a new WEBpliance. A browser in a reconditioned Apple II-e or an old IBM-compatible will do the job. Strong demand for dumb terminals could actually serve as an environmentally friendly way to recirculate old computers, PCs as well as laptops.

Third, computer users of all ages, adults as well as children, need content, programs to run on them (or run from a remote server). Now the federal government is not well-placed to design computer software, nor is it well-suited to orchestrating the design of computer software except in the most general way. Think of MACOS (Man: A Course of Study), the National Science Foundation curriculum fiasco of the recent past.

What is called for now are content vouchers, the opportunity to buy education content online.

What Uncle Sam is good at is giving away money (think of Social Security, Pell Grants, or graduate student loans). The check is in the mail. What is called for now are content vouchers, the opportunity to buy education content online. State departments of education could post approved e-content lists, just as they do approved textbooks.

The opportunities would be many: Publishers could convert existing hard copy to e-copy. The more inventive publishers could design new and exciting e-copy from scratch, using the dynamic quality of the Web to enhance their offerings. Not only would content vouchers provide resources to children who needed them, they would also stimulate the market to produce more and better titles. And the economies of scale would be dramatic and tangible. Publishers have no intrinsic reason to prefer hard copy to e- copy. To the contrary, e-copy, as pure content, has few of the burdens and costs of hard-copy production: no printing, no warehousing, no shipping.

What else could Uncle Sam do? Provide seed or development funding for orphan curricula (ancient Greek or Farsi, for example); put federal museums online; and perhaps most important, make its own teaching resources available for Web deployment. A striking example is the U.S. Naval Academy’s foreign-language programs; every midshipman (a term which includes females as well as males) who expects a foreign posting must study a second language.

Among its other teaching tools, the academy’s language faculty routinely downloads foreign- language soap operas; these are light, entertaining, and educational ways to see the language in action, humor, idioms, and all. The approach used in Annapolis is technology-rich, entertaining, and intellectually powerful. And what works for swabs can work for the rest of us.

Denis P. Doyle, an education writer and analyst, is the co-founder and chief academic officer of SchoolNet. He publishs an e-newsletter, www.thedoylereport.com, and can be reached at denis@schoolnet.com.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2001 edition of Education Week as Whither the Education Wars?


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