August 18, 2000 | Commentary on Education
But let's start with vouchers, an issue Mr. Lieberman said he was just flirting with. He has supported at least seven bills to promote school choice since 1992. The first was an amendment offered by Senator Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican, authorizing $30 million to help low-income parents send their children to schools of their choice. Another was an amendment offered last summer by Senator John McCain for a $5.4 billion, three-year pilot program offering one million children $2,000 vouchers.
During the floor debate on one such initiative, Mr. Lieberman made his position clear. "The true choice here is between preserving the status quo at all costs, which is slamming a door in the face of the parents and children who want to do better, and doing what is necessary to put those children first," he said. "In other words, asking whether the status quo of the public education orthodoxy, which is letting down so many children, is so important that we are willing to sacrifice the hopes and aspirations of thousands of children for the sake of a process, not for the sake of the children."
Consider also Mr. Lieberman's efforts to overhaul the federal role in education. He used this year's reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to mobilize support among fellow New Democrats for structural changes in the federal role in education. His frustration was understandable. The law's Title I program has consumed more than $120 billion since its creation in 1965 in a largely failed effort to close the achievement gap between rich and poor students. The law, initially only 32 pages long and focused on five programs, has ballooned to more than 1,000 pages and more than 50 programs.
Mr. Lieberman and another New Democrat, Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, introduced a measure that would have streamlined the more than 50 federal programs into five performance-based block grants. Each would have focused on specific objectives, like improving teacher quality and expanding parents' choice of public schools. The Lieberman-Bayh program also included financial rewards for states that raised student achievement, and sanctions for those that failed.
This may seem like a simple concept, but it was the first time Democrats had offered such a fundamental overhaul of a federal education program -- one that would shift the attention away from preserving programs to boosting academic achievement, especially among poor students. The plan also included a drastic increase in the budget for education, something that would appeal to traditional Democrats. But the education establishment would have none of it. The National Education Association urged senators not to vote for the bill, and Ted Kennedy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, swatted it aside. Nor was Vice President Al Gore publicly responsive, though Senator Lieberman's office reportedly sent his proposal to Mr. Gore's campaign staff, according to a National Journal article in October 1999. The bill went nowhere.
But Senator Lieberman may get another chance. Since the education law was not reauthorized this year, the next administration will have the opportunity to reconsider his plan. The only wrinkle: The presidential candidate who supports the Lieberman approach is George W. Bush.
Nina Shokraii Rees is a former senior education policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation.
Published in The New York Times (08/18/00)