- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2003

School choice and merit pay for teachers, major national education reforms called for by a federal commission two decades ago, have yet to be effectively implemented, a panel of education scholars concluded yesterday.
"[Public] schools have not been obliged to produce results; schools have had a captive audience and a guaranteed annual income forever," said Chester E. Finn, Jr., member and coordinator of the Hoover Institution's Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, at a Department of Education forum.
Too many "vested interests" are satisfied with the status quo, said Paul E. Peterson, professor and director of the John F. Kennedy School of Government's program on education policy and governance at Harvard University.
"Choice for families needs to be effectively implemented choice of public and private schools. We need to ensure that the same choices that are available to rich families are also available to poor families," he said in response to a question about allowing families to use public school funds, through vouchers, to send children to schools of their choice.
Carolyn M. Hoxby, an economics professor at Harvard, said teacher unions and other opponents of vouchers who say they cannot achieve legislated demands for standards-based reforms imposed by federal and state governments "are the bulwark against school choice."
Miss Hoxby said assessment tests and proposed voucher programs "aren't perfect" and should be improved through experience. "But we'll never improve accountability and choice if we don't try it."
Miss Hoxby said states and local communities also should implement merit pay for teachers. Paying excellent teachers the same as ineffective teachers and giving raises based only on tenure is bad public policy.
"Teachers will never get paid more if pay is totally unrelated to performance," she said.
The panel was convened to discuss national progress since "A Nation at Risk," a report card on schools issued 20 years ago by President Reagan's education secretary, Terrel E. Bell. The report showed that academic achievement of American schoolchildren was inadequate and called for a series of reforms to make education through high school more demanding and challenging.
Deputy Education Secretary William D. Hansen opened the forum with a chart showing dramatically rising spending for public schools now $780 billion a year, more than twice as much as total U.S. defense spending.
The chart compared spending increases with yearly student reading achievement measured by the National Assessment for Educational Progress. "The [reading] line is very flat," Mr. Hansen said.
"Of course money is important, and we're committed to providing more resources. But it's not just about money. It's also about reform," the deputy secretary said.
With half as much money, U.S. military forces in Iraq showed "we really do have a world-class operation," he said. "We need to look at what we're getting for our investment [in education]. … We need to have the same world-class operation."
Robert B. Schwartz, an education lecturer at Harvard and former education adviser to Democratic officeholders in Massachusetts, said Mr. Bell issued "A Nation at Risk" in April 1983 because he opposed President Reagan's intent to eliminate the Department of Education just 18 months after it was created as a Cabinet agency.
Mr. Bell's strategy was to have his commission state, as Reagan administration policy, "that education was a national issue," he said.
Mr. Reagan, "a masterful politician," talked instead about prayer in school and tuition tax credits when he accepted the report, Mr. Schwartz said. "He said there was no federal role and pushed the problem back onto the states. The governors then picked up the ball and ran with it."
President Bush, who made education reform a priority as governor of Texas, completed the political transformation with his No Child Left Behind education reform agenda, Mr. Peterson said.
"It changed the two parties politically. The Republican Party became the party of federal intervention in education. Requiring state accountability is really a dramatic change," the Harvard scholar said.
"The Democratic Party that was the party of federal intervention has become the party of state and local control," with important backing from teacher and government worker unions, Mr. Peterson said.
"The unions realize that state and local control is where their power is."

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