- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 16, 2000

The miseducation of America's children

If the 1992 election was about the economy, the 2000 contest may very well be an election about education. In survey after survey, the public places this hot domestic issue at the top of its agenda. And the public is right to be concerned. Seventeen years after we were declared a "nation at risk," our primary-secondary education system still begs for a fundamental overhaul. Unless the Senate acts boldly over the next month, a rare chance to rethink the federal role in education will be squandered.

Although the United States spends more than 8 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) a total of $664 billion on education, nearly 60 percent of our low-income 4th graders (and 40 percent of all 4th graders) cannot read at a basic level. On recent international tests of math and science, our high school seniors ranked near the bottom of industrialized nations; in mathematics, only Cyprus and South Africa faired worse. Today, one-third of all college freshmen enroll in at least one remedial class before attempting college-level course work.

We can and must do better. The task of improvement begins with two basic questions: Who is accountable for student performance? How can we fix broken schools? As the Senate gears up to debate the future of the federal government's role in education, it should be taking decisive steps to hold states accountable for the academic achievement that these dollars from Washington produce, especially among low-income students. In return, the states must have unprecedented freedom to deploy their federal dollars as they think best. That is why we support a simple but revolutionary proposal known as Academic Achievement for All, or "Straight A's."

Under Straight A's (a "pilot" version of which has already cleared the House of Representatives), states could, if they choose, sign a contract with Washington to boost their students' academic achievement by specified amounts. (States that prefer to stick with the old-style "categorical" programs could do so.) In order to reach these ambitious goals, participating states and districts would enjoy sweeping freedom to take the actions that they believe are most likely to succeed. Washington will step back from prescribing how and where its dollars are spent and concentrate instead on whether the states are producing acceptable results. After five years, if a state reaches its goal, it retains its freedom. If it does not, it returns to the regulatory straight-jacket of current law. To ensure that states give special attention to low-income groups, Straight A's also creates a $2.5 billion reward fund for states that dramatically narrow the achievement gap between low-income students and everyone else.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Under Straight A's, the old excuses blaming poverty, teachers, and local school boards would be rejected. The key to Straight A's is to give states regulatory freedom and fiscal responsibility for their education systems; in return, they undertake to improve the academic performance of their students. The accountability buck stops with the governors.

Reform-minded governors should welcome this challenge wrapped in an opportunity, as they did with welfare reform. And, indeed, some 15 governors have signaled their support for Straight A's. Yet the National Governors Association (NGA) opposes it. In its place, the NGA offers a half-hearted alternative that, regrettably, Senate Republicans seem ready to embrace. The NGA version constricts the flexibility available to a Straight A's state and leaves federal bureaucrats in the driver's seat. The authors of the NGA version are so concerned with hedging and caution that they have lost sight of the proposal's primary purpose: to give states the opportunity to try something different.

The old approach to federal education aid has failed. We have 35 years of experience with most of these programs and they have not accomplished their goals. Most alarmingly, they've failed utterly to close the rich-poor achievement gap, the sole goal of the biggest program of all, Title I. (Perversely, that's the program the NGA is most reluctant to see changed.) Nobody is certain that Straight A's will work. Nobody knows how many states will want to try it. But we know the old approach has failed.

Surely it's worth allowing interested states to innovate as was done in the early days of welfare reform. The House of Representatives has already passed Straight A's. Now it's the Senate's turn to decide whether to preserve the failed education status quo or embark on a worthy experiment, the beneficiaries of which will be the nation's neediest and worst-educated children.

William Bennett served as secretary of education from 1985 to 1988. Chester Finn Jr. served during the same period as assistant secretary for research and improvement.

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