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Alexander's Column

Lesson Plans for the Nation

Mark Alexander · Feb. 2, 2001

“When George Bush aspires to move the world of public primary and secondary education with the lever of federal aid, he is doing the best he can, given the tool at hand and the impediments in front of him. The tool is federal money, just 7% of all spending on public education from kindergarten through 12th grade. However, the threat of losing it can be an incentive for failing schools to change their behavior. Impediments to Bush include the public school industry, and the complacency of the American majority.” –George Will

“Leave no child behind” has become George W. Bush’s education mantra, first as Governor in Texas – then on the campaign trail for president of the United States. His education reform bill, although flawed, is Mr. Bush’s effort to take control of a behemoth that has left millions of children in intellectual impoverishment.

Mr. Bush has demonstrated that he has taken suggestions from listening to both sides of the aisle in identifying shared goals for education reform. Although education comprises many complexities, treating this issue as a primary priority is in step with the beliefs of most Americans, and any successes achieved from the proposed reform agenda could end the domination of this arena by Democrats and their teacher union allies.

The Bush plan will implement serious reform in persistently failing schools. The message the education bureaucracy should understand is this: Disadvantaged students and poor performing schools will no longer be allowed to wallow in mediocrity with federal tax dollars. Schools, school districts, and states will have greater freedom in administering federal education dollars. Research-based reading programs in the early elementary grades and for low-income preschoolers, as well as strengthening math and science education, are part of the Bush framework.

States will be held accountable for improving student achievement, demonstrated through annual state assessments in reading and math for students in grades 3-8. Schools will be required to give parents needed information about how their children are doing in school. Mr. Bush’s Education Secretary, Dr. Rod Paige, while superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, had great success using testing, particularly to identify at-risk students.

Of course, conservatives are apprehensive about the national testing features of this proposal. The potential for abuse is real, and we should demand our concerns in this regard be resolved. Fortunately, in the current proposal, states are allowed to choose the tests that best match their standards and curricula.

Dr. Paige’s Houston colleague, Don McAdams, wrote in “Fighting to Save Our Urban Schools…and Winning,” “Reform is seldom about reading, writing and arithmetic. Rather it is mostly about power, status and money.” The education proposal Dr. Paige will lead puts reform solidly in the former category, in stark contrast to the previous administration’s policies, which were firmly rooted in the latter.

However, the Bush plan does not eliminate the Department of Education – once a noble and worthy Republican objective – nor does it reduce its budget. Moreover, the plan is woefully inadequate in promoting competition via charter schools and “exit vouchers” for kids “left behind” in failing schools. In the absence of any such competition, or any rollback of the unconstitutional federal role in education, even the best-laid plan would face insurmountable opposition from the staid forces of the status quo seeking to waylay any potential successes in accomplishing education reform.

As we noted above, successful reform is of paramount importance politically; success is indeed the best revenge, and success is further the best teacher, and the best test of any plan. Let’s reform the reforms, to guarantee their success … so as to guarantee the success of our children.

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