Fresh Thinking about Federal Education Policy
Welcoming Remarks and Introduction
HENRY OLSEN:Itís my pleasure to welcome you to this conference on the role of the federal government on education policy, sponsored by the Manhattan Institute in conjunction with the Progressive Policy Institute. I'm Henry Olsen, Director of the Center for Civic Innovation at the Manhattan Institute, and I just want to say a few words about the general theme that our speakers will be addressing.
For months now, the polls, the politicians and parents have been telling us that federal and state education policy are the number one issues facing the country. In one sense thatís surprising, because for the last 50 years our politics have been dominated largely by questions of war and peace, or the economy.
On the other hand, the question of what we ought to teach our children has been regarded as important throughout American history. Our concern began in the early days of the republic, with the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the first official act of the Congress, providing for the institution of public education in the new territories of the Northwest.
Indeed, the first people to think seriously about politics, the Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, all agreed that the most important question for government to answer was how to raise the young. What is surprising, perhaps, is that not only are we talking about the same themes that have dominated politics and political discussion for hundreds of years, but that weíre asking the same questions.
Aristotle asks whether the parent or the state is better able to provide for the childís education, and he proscribes a detailed curriculum that he thinks is a model for what all young people ought to learn. Does this sound familiar to everybody?
Because we are all thinking about similar questions at this point in our history, we thought it might be better to have todayís session focus on what good education policy should be about broadly, and avoid debates over provisions of specific bills. Who is better able to guide education policy, the federal government or the states? What role ought parents and teachers and local administrators have in obtaining freedom from those dictates whether they be state or federal?
We also thought it was appropriate to have not one viewpoint in this debate, but instead to recognize that there is an honest, respectable division of opinion and that all points of view ought to be heard. We thought we should actually sponsor a discussion, a civil policy discussion rather than a place to score political points or a rhetorical conference.
Of course, the Manhattan Institute has one particular set of opinions. Research from Checker Finn and Floyd Flake and our other education experts suggests to us that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of federal bureaucrats issuing inflexible decrees. We believe itís swung too far away from the sort of knowledge-based curriculum that parents seem to demand and that studies suggests our children need most in order to prepare themselves for lives as citizens and workers in the next century's economy.
Joining us today are our co-sponsors from the Progressive Policy Institute, which I'm sure is well known to everyone here in the audience. It's my pleasure to introduce the President of the Progressive Policy Institute to give his opening remarks, Mr. Will Marshall.
WILL MARSHALL:Thanks very much, Henry. On behalf of PPI, welcome to this morningís program. It is a great pleasure for us to be collaborating for the first time with the Manhattan Institute on a discussion about fresh thinking in federal education policy.
I want to give a special thanks to Checker Finn, who was one of the driving forces behind this collaboration and also to acknowledge the tremendously valuable contribution of the New Directions book that Checker and the Manhattan Institute have produced.
PPI today is also releasing our official view on the question of Title I and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), how we ought to use this reauthorization to redefine the federal government's role in education.
We certainly believe that we cannot afford to let another five years go by without a fundamental shift in the way Washington approaches its small, but important, role in public education. Recently, I was reading a survey of the American economy in The Economist. It noted the awesome strength of this current, seemingly steroid-driven economy. The Economist noted that there were only two real structural flaws in this picture of robust performance. One was weak public schools and the other was low personal savings rates. I think there's a growing consensus in this country that the new economy really does demand much higher levels of cognitive skills and problem-solving skills from everybody, not just those students who are destined for elite jobs as professionals or managers.
We're also reminded by Christopher Jencks and other social scientists that the abysmal performance of our urban education systems is one of the leading perpetuators of racial and ethnic inequality in our country.
So from high-tech entrepreneurs in the business community and low-income families in the inner city, you hear the same thing: Fixing America's schools ought to be our top priority. And, indeed, the polls say that that's what Americans have foremost in their minds.
Interestingly, itís the states who seem to be firmly in the lead of reform and innovation. Governors from Gray Davis in California and George Bush in Texas to my favorite new governor, Jessie Ventura in Minnesota, all have made education reform the centerpiece of their work. But on this issue as on so many others, Washington has become a lagging indicator of social change.
It was not always so. We need only look back to the beginnings of programs we're going to be focusing on today to remember a time when Washington was a catalyst for long overdue changes in society, including in education. Whatever you think about the Great Society programs, I think at least it's worth trying to recapture the spirit of experimentation at their root.
The question is: Can our nation's political leaders overcome the forces of inertia and begin experimenting again? I don't want to be Pollyannaish or too optimistic about it, but the basic political elements are in place. I think we have in the White House a Democratic president who is seriously committed to some fairly radical changes in education policy, seriously committed to accountability as he, I thought, eloquently laid out in the State of the Union Address. And we have a Congress controlled by the Republican Party, which obviously has long been critical of the status quo in education.
The greatest danger in this debate is that we'll pay rhetorical lip service to the need for accountability and flexibility. After all, this debate has a groundhog quality. In 1994 during the reauthorization, flexibility and accountability and targeting were also words everyone used a lot. But not much really changed. We can't afford to go through another cosmetic exercise. Now we've got to make the structural changes that we talked about last time.
This time around we have the best opportunity to use Washington's limited, but essential, role in public education to leverage major changes in public schools. Washington obviously can't reorganize our public education enterprise from the top down, but it can really hasten the evolution of the old bureaucratic monopoly into a high performance system, based on choice and competition and accountability for results.
In our report and in other comments today you'll undoubtedly hear a lot of realism about the results of Title I and other federal programs. Speaking personally, and from PPI's point of view, that should not be construed as an argument for a shrinking federal role. On the contrary, I think that if Washington focuses on the right goals, if it is truly committed to lifting student performance, that it can -- and really must -- play a critical role in modernizing our school systems.
So with that I'm supposed to turn to things over to the panel. But I notice the absence of our moderator, the columnist E.J. Dionne. E.J. will be here. He has a very good excuse for being late Ė he's dropping his kids off at school. But I guess that we should we should get started.
In E.J.ís absence, Iím going to give very minimalistic introductions to our speakers. Without further ado, let me turn things over to Jack Jennings, Director of the Center on Education Policy, to offer his perspective on this issue.