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Jewish World Review Dec. 17, 2001 / 2 Teves 5762

Philip Terzian

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Better schools, better teachers -- WASHINGTON -- In the midst of his foreign triumphs, few have noticed that George W. Bush recently won a notable domestic victory as well. House and Senate conferees have agreed on an education bill that is, with minor modifications, what the President wanted last spring. This is a tribute to Mr. Bush's ability to negotiate with the likes of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and, on Senator Kennedy's part, recognition that Mr. Bush is not without his own political clout, especially after Sept. 11.

Most important, it is the biggest, and most salutary, change in Lyndon Johnson's Elementary and Secondary Education Act since that landmark "federal-aid-to-education" bill passed 36 years ago.

In our age of trillion-dollar budgets, it is sometimes forgotten that, up until a generation ago, "federal aid to education" was on every progressive's wish list, along with gun control, repeal of section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act, and recognition of Communist China. But if we have learned anything in the decades since the Great Society was enacted, it is that the participation of the federal government in social programs does not guarantee success, to say the least; and you can't solve problems by "throwing money at them."

Indeed, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act illustrates, to some degree, the extent to which federal largesse only makes things worse. LBJ's landmark legislation swiftly became a cash cow for congressmen eager to funnel money to their affluent districts, and a device for reinventing inequality between the sexes and races (busing, Title IX, etc.). As more federal money was spent on the nation's schools, aptitude and achievement test scores seemed to fall ever lower.

As readers will remember, George W. Bush campaigned on the general principle that "no child shall be left behind." Accordingly, his education package tends to concentrate on the people who need it: Failing students and systems with large numbers of poor children. There will be mandatory testing to monitor progress in reading and mathematics from the third through the eighth grade. There will be accountability if systems fail to show improvement in timely fashion. Funding for reading programs is increased by 300 percent. School districts will be allowed unprecedented flexibility in deciding how federal dollars are spent. Bilingual programs will be refashioned with an emphasis on learning English.

There is even a kind of School Choice Lite: Children will be permitted to transfer out of failing schools into other public or charter schools within their own district, and in some instances, money will be available to parents for tutoring, after-school services and summer school programs.

Conservatives are not exactly jumping with joy. They would prefer for choice programs to include the option of private and parochial schools, but recognize that Mr. Bush must deal with political reality. Liberals are equally ambivalent. They welcome any increase in federal spending, but recognize that certain elements of the bill undermine the strength of the teachers' unions, their political allies and, by any measure, the biggest obstacle to comprehensive reform.

Missing in all this, of course, are those students who are doing reasonably well in school, and those districts that have sufficient resources to support them. The federal government doesn't have much to offer here. But the decreasing value of high school diplomas attests to the fact that money is not the fundamental problem.

Into this vacuum steps Prof. Frederick Hess of the University of Virginia, who offers a proposal that could have a more salutary influence on the nation's schools than any federal legislation. In a paper he recently wrote for the Progressive Policy Institute, he suggests that states should discard certification requirements, and ask prospective teachers three basic questions: Do you have a college diploma? Can you pass a test in your subject area? Can you pass a criminal background check? If the answers are yes, principals should be free to choose appropriate applicants.

Unfortunately, each state now imposes its own complex guidelines for certification, such guidelines include degrees from an education program, and there is no consensus about what those programs should be teaching. Moreover, education programs and schools of education are decidedly mediocre: The famous UCLA graduate school of education accepts nearly two-thirds of its applicants, who learn teaching "techniques" -- God help us -- and are tested at the eighth- or 10th-grade level.

"The problem is not the existence of schools of education and teacher preparation programs or their particular failings," writes Professor Hess. "The real problem lies in state laws that give these schools and programs a monopoly on training and certifying teachers." His paper, appropriately enough, is entitled "Tear Down This Wall."

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal