January 11, 2002

January 11, 2002 | Commentary on Education

Education Reform: Half a Loaf

Time for a quick pop quiz. Can you identify the speaker?

"Today, and for generations to come, America will benefit from this law, which expresses our national commitment to quality education for all children."

President Bush, who just signed a highly touted education reform bill with great bipartisan fanfare? Good guess, but it was President Ford ... when he had just signed a highly touted education reform bill with great bipartisan fanfare. That was in 1974.

Try another: "This year with the help of education and parent associations, we have together taken an historic step in the evolution of the federal role in education." No, that wasn't President Bush, either. It was President Carter in 1978.

One last quote: "It is not an overstatement to say this is the most important reauthorization in this legislation's history. It reshapes the manner in which the federal government supports public schools across the nation."

You've no doubt caught on by now -- it's not President Bush. That was Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., in 1994. Yes, the same Sen. Kennedy who was in attendance as President Bush hailed the new education reform bill as "the most important piece of legislation most of us will ever work on."

Sounds awfully familiar. With every new education bill come lofty statements, more programs and higher spending -- but no corresponding rise in achievement. More than half of all poor children still score below "basic" on the National Assessment of Education Progress reading and math tests.
Make no mistake: The new law makes some progress. For one thing, it contains the president's Reading First proposal, which will help states set up better reading programs for children in kindergarten through 3rd grade. A companion program, Early Reading First, will boost reading ability for poor children. Clearly, teaching children to read correctly from an early age will help them excel in other subjects.

Another improvement is teacher quality. The new law consolidates several teacher programs, freeing up funds for local school districts to recruit and train the best instructors. It allows states to invest in a variety of effective teacher-quality initiatives, such as tenure reform, merit pay and teacher testing.

Its bilingual-education components are good, too. States must set goals for making students proficient in English and hold their schools accountable. The law eliminates restrictions that prevent teachers from using proven methods of instruction such as English immersion.

But look at the debit side of the ledger. The new law perpetuates most of the old federal education programs, many of which are ineffective and wasteful, and even throws in a few more. Far from focusing on a few national priorities, such as helping poor children catch up, it contains more than 65 programs, ranging from educational TV to gender-related ones such as the "Women's Educational Equity Act." (My favorite: the "Educational, Cultural, Apprenticeship, and Exchange Programs for Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and Their Historical Whaling and Trading Partners in Massachusetts." If that's not a national priority, what is?)

The law also gives children only limited opportunities to escape failing schools. The president's original proposal would have let parents take part of their federal education money and use it to either arrange for tutoring or transfer their children to a public or private school of choice. The law goes halfway; it allows children trapped in failing schools to transfer to another public school in the same district. If the best school in your area is a private one just down the street, you're out of luck.

Yes, the law institutes better testing and provides more accountability, which will let parents know how well their children -- and their schools -- are doing. But this information means little if parents can't use it to ensure that their children are attending the best school they can.

Some say half a loaf's better than none. That may be the case here, but only if Congress and the president use this law as a stepping stone to greater reforms -- to create the kind of school choice children need if we're to guarantee them a world-class education.

Then perhaps the next time we herald a change in the law as major progress, we'll be doing more than just supplying a nice quotation for the history books.

Krista Kafer is an education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Krista Kafer Senior Education Policy Analyst
Domestic Policy Studies

Related Issues: Education

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