One generalization clearly evident is that educational reform itself was a high priority among voters during the primary campaigning and in the election itself after the party conventions in July and August. Opinion polls consistently reported that education was one of the highest priorities in the minds of the electorate, and this undoubtedly influenced the campaign rhetoric and proposals. In fact, it may well be true that education was a more prominent political issue in the 1996 national election than ever before. And much of it centered on the appeals to parental and private efforts of the free market approach to education in contrast to the efforts to achieve higher national standards through improving public education. Although there was a variety of views on both sides of the party spectrum during the campaign, I believe it is fair to say that by and large Republican candidates favored one or more of the free market means to reform education, while Democratic candidates favored national standards as a goal for reform of public education, thus gaining major support from organized teachers and labor.
Another generalization is that the politics of combat and conflict that marked the 1996 campaign seemed to be verging rather more toward a politics of conciliation or comity in the first few months following the election. During this time, both the White House and the Republican Congressional leadership decided that the voters were tired of the uncivil bickering over education. It is too early to determine how long that conciliation will last.
Recall that the bipartisan approval of national standards beginning with the Charlottesville summit of 1989 had resulted in passage by a Democratic Congress of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act in March 1994, but that implementation was stalled by the Republican revolution in the November elections of 1994. By the time I delivered my lecture in May of 1996 the battle lines were quite clearly drawn. President Clinton's State of the Union Address in January 1996 had highlighted Goals 2000, but he also indicated that he had moved toward "choice for public schools" and toward experiments with charter schools as well as the importance of character education, school-to-work programs, Americorps, and college loans and grants.
Then, during the primary campaigns of spring and summer in 1996, the lines of partisanship were more clearly drawn. All nine Republican candidates were generally agreed that the federal role in education should be sharply curtailed, including abolishing the U.S. Department of Education, curtailing the Goals 2000 movement toward national standards (using the history and English standards as horrible examples), elevating parental rights and vouchers for private and religious schools, and wiping out affirmative action and Americorps. But, on the other hand, they also generally favored an activist federal role to promote prayer in the public schools, even if that required a constitutional amendment, and they favored the legal establishment of English as America's national language.
In the weeks following my lecture in May 1996 the politics of the free market in educational reform were highlighted in the Republican presidential campaign. When Senator Dole clinched the Republican candidacy for president, he urged the schools to emphasize traditional values, arguing for school choice and attacking the National Education Association as a major threat to American educational reform. The Republicans in Congress drew up a constitutional amendment favoring school prayer at the urging of the Christian Coalition, in part at least to bolster the sagging fortunes of Senator Dole. The Republican Party Platform, dominated by conservative activists, spelled out for Senator Dole the details of the free market approach: The family, not government, is the core institution in American life; so return control of the schools to parents, decentralized school systems, teachers, local communities and taxpayers. Keep the federal government out of educational matters, because it has no constitutional authority over education. Abolish the U.S. Department of Education, promote family choice at all levels of learning, and repeal the Goals 2000 Act and School-to-Work Act of 1994, replacing them with "opportunity scholarships" (vouchers) for low and middle class parents, block grants to the states, school rebates, charter schools, and vouchers to make parental choice a reality for all parents. The Democratic Platform emphasized strengthening public education from bottom to top, expanded choice in public schools but no vouchers for private or religious schools, and supporting the goal of character building for good citizenship.
Meanwhile, the "politics of virtue" continued apace. Two weeks after my lecture, Michael Sandel's book, Democracy's Discontent, received high marks in the lead review of The New York Times Book Review. He was interviewed on C-Span's Booknotes by Brian Lamb and was a featured speaker at the third Conference on "Character Building in a Democratic, Civil Society" when it was held at the White House and Congress in early June. Sponsored by the Communitarian Network and Amitai Etzioni, conference speakers included Republican Senators Nancy Kassebaum and Alan Simpson and Democratic Senators Paul Simon and Joe Lieberman. As in the earlier conferences, civitas played a significant but fairly small role; moral character was featured over civic virtue. A fourth such conference is to be held in June 1997 again featuring a bipartisan program that includes political leaders from the White House, Congress, and major national education associations along with academic experts on character development, crime, and youth. As in the earlier conferences, one of the six task forces will deal with civic education in the schools, but the main emphasis is to be on "Character Building" as the title of the conference indicates.
The two faces of political virtue continued to appear throughout the campaign. On one hand, Garry Wills argued that the politics of mistrust had stooped so low that it was becoming actual contempt for government, and David Duke of the University of Virginia deplored the "politics of polarization." On the other front, a conservative trio (Jack Kemp, William Bennett, and Lamar Alexander) had formed "Empower America" to promote the devolution of federal education programs to the state, local, and private levels through the use of vouchers. To offset this view, the Gallup Poll of October 1996 showed that majority attitudes among the public actually favored strengthening public schools, opposing vouchers for non-public schools, rejecting privatization of public schools, and 86% saying that the most important goal of public education should be to prepare youth for responsible citizenship. Democrats were listening more carefully to such polls than were the Republicans.
In token of efforts to find bipartisan approaches to the problems of mistrust of government, a "National Commission on Civic Renewal" was formed with Senator Sam Nunn and William Bennett as co-chairs and Professor William Galston of the University of Maryland as executive director and with support from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Its goal was to do for citizenship what "A Nation at Risk" in 1983 had tried to do for educational reform, namely build civility and a civic spirit.
All these efforts at political civility had to compete, however, with recurring charges of ethical lapses at the White House over fund raising, FBI files, Whitewater, and Travelgate. But, also, the House Ethics Committee leveled charges against Speaker Newt Gingrich for conduct that did not reflect creditably on the House and for information given to the Committee that was "inaccurate, incomplete, and unreliable." There was a special kind of irony in the case of Gingrich. The main charges had to do with his improper use of tax-exempt funds to support a college course on "Renewing American Civilization" for political purposes. Not exactly an example of "education for civitas" in the service of "civic virtue."
After President Clinton's second inaugural address in January 1997 stressing a "politics of reconciliation," hopes were expressed that "a third force" of moderation and agreement about the role of government might be in the offing. Examples: Statements by leaders of the Republican-leaning Heritage Foundation and of the Public Policy Institute of the Democratic Leadership Council.
It became even more clear in Clinton's State of the Union address that improvement of American education would be the chief goal of his administration. He listed ten points in this, his No.1 highest priority. The first point was to mount a national crusade for education standards, not Federal Government standards, but national standards defining what all American students must know, and to train teachers to lift the sights of students so that the students would be able pass national tests in the non-controversial subjects of reading by the 4th grade and of mathematics by the 8th grade. Nothing was said about standards or tests in the other core subjects. At this point, this omission was probably smart as a political tactic.
But, remember, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) had already agreed to issue a national test in civics and government in1998, based on The National Standards for Civics and Government issued by the Center for Civic Education. Two more of Clinton's ten points could be crucial here: (1) The National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (originally sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation) was cited as a model way to improve the preparation of teachers at a high level and should receive federal funds to aid its work. Much will depend on the kind of assessment the Board will develop for selecting master teachers in civics and government. (2) Character education must be taught to prepare children to be good citizens. But there is a major catch here. There was no mention of federal funds for this purpose. A national assessment of "good moral character" could become a most controversial matter. Instead, since assessment of the knowledge and skills of "good citizenship" is already in the making, I believe that is the way to go.
In general, it can be said that in the year since I delivered my lecture, the Democrats maintained their support for public education but moved toward parental rights by supporting parental choice among public schools and by expanding their support for charter schools. Whether large numbers of Democrats would begin to support vouchers for inner city scholarships for poor children remained to be seen. Polls in Milwaukee and elsewhere had already begun to show that inner city African-Americans were favoring choice programs that helped them to escape from deteriorating public schools.
In general, Republicans made much of parental rights and of reducing the federal financial role in education, but some frankly desired to move as much as politically possible toward a full free market for private and religious efforts in education, often supported by federal and state funds in the form of charter schools and vouchers for private and religious schools.
In the June issue of "Church and State" published by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, an article by Rob Boston described the efforts of a three-year old advocacy group based in Arlington, Virginia called "Of The People" as the nerve center for the parental rights movement. He went so far as to say that the parental rights movement is luring Americans into an attack on public schools and church-state separation and thus to extend the use of public vouchers in support of parental choice of private and religious schools.
Special efforts to pass a parental rights law on a ballot initiative were made in Colorado during the 1996 November election. It would have added a section to the State Constitution's Bill of Rights: Parents would have the inalienable "right to direct and control the upbringing, education, values and discipline of their children." Amendment 17 was funded overwhelmingly by the out-of-state Of The People and supported by the Christian Coalition and several other conservative activist groups, including Bob Dole during his presidential campaign. But it was opposed by Colorado's Democratic Governor Roy Romer and a broad coalition of 150 groups of teachers, churches, district attorneys, county sheriffs, nurses, and librarians as well as such national advocacy groups for public education as Americans United and People for the American Way.
The day before the election was held, the New York Times reporter, James Brooke, called the amendment campaign "the most polarizing initiative that the state has seen since 1992, when voters narrowly approved an amendment against gay rights that has since been declared unconstitutional." Although opinion polls had indicated passage of the initiative, it was defeated by 57% of the voters. The losers confidently predicted that they would win on another day and in many other places. There was little doubt that the parental rights campaign was indelibly linked with vouchers, enabling parents to put into educational practice their alleged legally and politically established rights.
Vouchers and School Choice. The debate over vouchers in the months before and after the 1996 election took several forms. The constitutional question regarding aid to religious schools was still being bruited in the courts. Wisconsin was an especially interesting example. A private school voucher plan for low-income families has been in place in Milwaukee since 1990, but it was limited to non-sectarian private schools until Republican Governor Tommy Thompson persuaded the state legislature in 1995 to expand the program to include sectarian religious schools as well as secular private schools. The case was taken directly to the Wisconsin State Supreme Court and argued by Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel who was also investigating the politically dynamite Whitewater case. However, this effort to bypass a local court, which was deemed unfriendly to the idea, backfired. In March 1996, the state Supreme Court split 3-3 on whether this move violated the state and federal constitutions and sent the case back to the lower court.
In July, Senator Dole went to Milwaukee and Cleveland to campaign for the expansion of school choice to religious schools, which might gain him more Catholic and labor votes as well as those of the Christian Coalition. He proposed a $5-billion-a-year federal program to be matched by as many as 15 states for pilot projects that would allow parents to pay tuition for whatever school the parents chose, public, private, or parochial. Dole called his vouchers "Opportunity Scholarships for Children" patterned after the GI Bill grants for World War II veterans. This argument prompted the Christian Science Monitor in an editorial on July 23rd to oppose vouchers for religious schools, but it did agree with Clinton's position on the church-state issue in what appeared to be his concession that vouchers for secular private schools might be tried in pilot projects. While the Wisconsin judge was about to consider the Milwaukee case, an Ohio state judge ruled in August 1996 that a similar program in Cleveland did not violate the First Amendment, because the vouchers benefited the religious schools only indirectly as a result of parental choice. This gave great hope to conservative advocates of choice.
The choice issue was in the forefront of the presidential debate between Dole and Clinton on October 6. In response to Dole's support for "opportunity scholarships," Clinton seemed to give in to the idea of vouchers for religious schools, when he said that he favored choice for public schools but added,"If we're going to have a private voucher plan, that ought to be done at the local level or the state level." Once again, the President supported expansion of choice as a means of reform, but he did not touch the hot button issue of choice for private or religious schools. In fact, he generally avoided the constitutional issues of the separation of church and state, which lie at the root of controversies over vouchers for private schooling and over the expansion of charter schools to include religious school charters.
In the Wall Street Journal on October 10, Chester Finn immediately declared "The End of the Debate on School Choice." He gloated that "Mr. Clinton offered no principled argument against school vouchers....The argument over philosophy is over...and choice proponents have won." Finn's claim to victory was short lived, however. Secretary of Education Richard Riley and the White House backed away from the idea that vouchers for religious schools is what the President meant. In later comments, President Clinton reverted to his support for "choice in public schools," but during the election campaign he never seemed to accent the word public, nor did he elaborate the constitutional argument against support for religious schools.
After the election was over, vouchers for religious schools did take a beating at the state level. Washington State voters defeated a school choice initiative for the fourth time and by a hefty two-thirds majority. The defeated backers declared openly what may become a wider political tactic; they announced that at the next election they would propose a charter school law as a more viable political road to choice. Then, in January 1997, Wisconsin Judge Paul Higgenbotham struck down Governor Thompson's 1995 law, ruling that the expansion of that law offering vouchers for religious school attendance violated both the Wisconsin State Constitution and the U.S. Constitution. He also struck down the expansion of the program to include nonsectarian private schools. His ruling brought to the surface the principle that vouchers for religious schools violate the constitutional separation of church and state. His ruling insured that the case would go back up to the Wisconsin State Supreme Court and very likely on to the U.S. Supreme Court. The First Amendment religious question continued to be of concern to a large number of mainline churches as well as to more fundamentalist religious conservatives who worried that aid to religious schools would lead to unwanted government intervention.
Meanwhile, some political conservatives began to shift their arguments to a different tack that might prove to be more easily palatable to the courts and to public opinion, i.e., provide public vouchers for poor children in inner cities who could not otherwise escape their dreadful public schools.
Whether the House weekend retreat on civility, which 200 House Republicans and Democrats held together in early March 1997 at Hershey, Pennsylvania, will have much effect on political discourse may be tested when Congress comes to debate what Majority Leader Trent Lott designated as Senate bill No. 1 of this Congress, called the "Safe and Affordable Schools Act of 1997." It provides $50 million in the first year for 20 - 30 school districts to distribute "certificates" to enable children in "unsafe" inner cities to attend private schools.
And in the House, Republican Representatives J. C. Watts and James M. Talent introduced an omnibus bill called the "American Community Renewal Act" aimed at inner cities, which includes $5 billion for school vouchers and federal funds for social services conducted by sectarian religious institutions. In mid-March 1997 Floyd H. Flake, a Democratic Representative from New York who is a member of the Black Caucus in the House, announced his support for this inner city bill, thus breaking the traditional party line-up on vouchers and possibly forecasting that this particular approach may become an important breach in the wall against vouchers.
Another tack may be indicated by a Wall Street Journal editorial welcoming the values of a private experiment in which "School Choice Scholarships" are funded by philanthropic money from business corporations rather than by public tax funds, enabling poor students in the inner cities to attend religious schools of any denomination as well as to nonsectarian private schools. This could be another approach to vouchers, free of constitutional barriers, in the effort to prove that private schools are superior to union-dominated public schools. The general idea of private funds for private schools carries no constitutional barrier as far as financing is concerned. A problem still remains with regard to the role of the state and local communities in defining national standards for those schools and in determining the curriculum and instruction designed to prepare for American citizenship. A similar problem confronts the spread of charter schools
. Charter Schools. In my Minnesota lecture I did not give many details about charter schools, and I cannot do so in this Afterword. But it is very clear that the charter school movement has gained considerable strength since March of 1996, and the volume of controversy, rhetoric, and writing about it has exploded. Attitudes toward the idea and practice of charter schools vary from untrammeled enthusiasm to great scepticism and opposition. By and large, the "liberal educational establishment of public education" has been most skeptical and the "conservative free market reformers" have been the most outspoken promoters.
Still, the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers have moved rather slowly and haltingly from opposition or scepticism to more or less willingness to try some pilot projects involving charter school practices. Naturally, they are less willing to give charter schools the option to hire uncertified teachers, excessive freedom from legal and civil rights regulations, or public scrutiny of their fiscal affairs. At the opposite extreme, the Educational Excellence Network headed by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Diane Ravitch has constantly trumpeted the values of the charter school movement. From its beginning, its monthly "Network News and Views" has been filled with reports and articles under the heading "Chartering the Course." Its volumes have been a prime source of reporting research studies and favorable editorial opinion during most of its publication life, which ended with its December 1996 issue.
Indeed, one of the more sceptical articles, originally published in the International Journal of Educational Reform (April 1996) was reprinted in "Network News" in August 1996. Louann Bierlein and Mark Bateman of Louisiana State University were doubtful that charter schools could succeed in the face of opposition by the status quo. On the other hand, two of the most enthusiastic supporters have been Chester Finn, fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, and Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.
In a featured Op-Ed piece in the New York Times (August 24, 1996) Finn exuberantly claimed that charter schools are now "the most vibrant force in American education." He pointed out that both Senator Dole and President Clinton had spoken out in their favor, and that 25 states have now passed legislation authorizing charter schools. He reported briefly on a new study that he and his colleagues had made of 43 charter schools in seven states: The best of these have had the most independence to decide what to teach, how to teach it, whom to hire, how to use resources, what hours to operate, and how best to meet student needs. But he cautioned that teachers unions may spoil them with insistence upon collective bargaining and tenure rights for teachers. Finn pointed out that of the 8,400 students in their sample of charter schools 63% were minorities and 55% were poor, He admitted that "We don't know for certain that charter students are learning more" because the schools are too new, but he was certain that "by redefining what public education means, they offer a model of accountability that traditional schools will find hard to avoid."
By September 1996 both the NEA and AFT were encouraging their local chapters to experiment with charter schools in the hopes of demonstrating that favorable results could be achieved by charter schools even though they maintained their teachers union contracts. The momentum toward charter schools not only continued to be highlighted in the "News and Notes" of the Excellence Network but was also featured in the September 1996 issue of the Phi Delta Kappan, which featured ten articles mostly favorable to the charter school movement. Joe Nathan, as guest editor of the Special Section on Charter Schools, gave a brief history of the five years of the charter movement and cited four powerful concepts that have empowered it: "freedom and choice for parents, entrepreneurial opportunities for educators, explicit accountability for schools, and thoughtful, fair competition for public school districts." Apparently sensitive to the character of the Kappan readership, Nathan stressed the values of charter schools for reform of public schools and distinguished it clearly from the voucher movement. His book on charter schools was published by Jossey-Bass in October 1996; it formed the basis of his article in Education Week (February 19, 1997). He applauded the added support given to charter schools by President Clinton's endorsement as well as that of Secretary Riley and such educational reformers as Robert Slavin, James P. Comer, Henry Levin, and Deborah Myer. And he took pains to stress the "public school" character of the charter schools, especially if they are freed from supervision by local school districts and freed from regulations by state and federal governments.
This is an interesting argument to be made by those who claim that "local control of education" is better than federal or state control. Apparently, the more "local" the control is, the better for educational achievement. "Local" thus comes down to a group of like-minded parents or even to the locality of a single family engaged in "home schooling." With the abolition of federal, state, or local district controls, the ultimate test thus is "accountability" for the achievement of students. And who will set the standards and who will measure or test the level of achievement? Will "standards of achievement" also be set by individual schools, or teachers, or parents? If charter school teachers and parents do not like "national standards" in history or English, where will they turn? Will they still be subject to state tests of achievement in order to maintain their charters? If left to themselves, will there be any standards for the qualifications or licensing of teachers or of "home school" parents who do the teaching?
These are questions that need to be faced as the charter school movement gains momentum. The Indiana Policy Center in its "Policy News and Notes" (Winter 1996 - 97) pointed out that the number of charter schools had doubled in the past year, from 226 to 480, and that federal funding for charter schools had increased from $6 million in 1995 to $51 million in1997. That was an interesting development on behalf of those who wish to decrease the federal role in education and turn it back to local and parental control.
In sum, while there has been rapid spread and approval of the charter school idea, I found no parallel increase of interest among charter school advocates in assuring that the schools run by parents, teachers, or private interest groups were expanding their interest in assuring a lively and fruitful education for the public good and the other values of a democratic civitas. Whatever the fault of public schools, their main justification and rationale have been their foundational contribution to civic education for all students. I do not find such a rationale in the ideology of charter school advocates, let alone in the growing number of research studies focussed on their value in raising the achievement levels of charter school students. So, it becomes more necessary than ever that the civic education of charter schools be evaluated in terms of their acceptance of the National Standards for Civics and Government and their willingness to have their students measured by the NAEP tests of achievement in civics and government, which will be ready for use in 1998.
If, however, charter schools object to such testing on the grounds that their very rationale is to be free of such outside "accountability," and to develop a curriculum that suits the needs of the children whose parents chose the particular charter school, what then shall be the reply of the state or local educational authorities that issued their charters? I believe that it must be that education for citizenship is the obligation of all schools in America, public, private, or religious, and that "certain studies plainly essential to good citizenship must be taught." Whatever the other merits of charter schools may be, merits that entitle them to be considered as "public schools," or as substitutes for public schools, they must be held to account for their teaching of good citizenship as a prime goal of their charters. If there are to be national tests of achievement in English literacy and in mathematics applicable to students in all of American schools, there must also be national tests of achievement in civics and government.
In the most recent article to be cited in this Working Paper, Chester Finn and his colleagues at the Hudson Institute's Washington office even seem to be worried that charter schools will become too popular in the hands of "The False Friends of Charter Schools." (Education Week Commentary, May 1, 1997)
They are fearful that President Clinton's adoption of the charter school idea and his proposal to increase federal funds for their start-up from $50 million to $100 million will dilute the basic purpose of breaking free from government regulations and educational bureaucrats. At least, they gave a kind of answer, if not reassurance, to sceptics. They not only say that "the school must be free to decide who will teach what and how," but they say a little later:
...since the charter-issuing body is not obliged to renew its charter, to remain in existence it [the school] must deliver the promised results, usually defined in academic standards and tracked on statewide (or other) tests. If the charter issuer wants to ensure that the school doesn't voyage into curricular outer space, it can stipulate core skills and knowledge. Otherwise, those running the school decide what to teach. (The one big exception, of course, is religion.)But what they give on one hand is taken back by saying "Public education, as currently constituted, is a species showing signs of extinction." As Checker would say, "Stay tuned."
Privatization of Public Schools. In the past year, much more public attention has been devoted to the spread of charter schools than to the efforts of private enterpriser s to create "new designs" for public schools or, by contract, to take over some or all of the management of public schools in a particular district and still earn a profit for the enterprise. Every now and then the press has reported that a study has been made of such efforts and the result publicized. For example, the Rand Corporation made a study of the new design projects being worked up by the New American Schools Development Corporation since its establishment by private corporations in 1991 during the Bush administration. The headline in Education Week (May 1, 1996) said "Progress Report on NASDC Projects Finds Mixed Results." I have not been able to study the report in detail, but the story in Education Week played up some of the barriers that impede reform, such as not working closely enough with teachers colleges to prepare teachers for the role they must play in curriculum development and not involving the public in discussions of the goals of schooling and the value of education.
Later in May, a progress report on the Edison project's "new designs" for public elementary schools stated that they were receiving "high marks" from the four communities in which they were operating. Plans were made to expand to twelve schools, including four middle schools, in 1996-97. This turned out to be a small scale enterprise compared to the original vision of thousands of such schools to lead the way for the improvement of education in the United States. None of the press reports I have seen about these schools indicate a special concern for civic education, while much is made of a longer school day, expansive technology for all children, cleaner buildings, and more individualized instruction.
Meanwhile, other private contracts with public schools met with great difficulties and were broken off or not renewed. The most adverse publicity was given to the disputes that arose over the efforts of Education Alternatives. Inc to run the schools in Baltimore and Hartford. In almost all cases of ongoing experimentation, it was declared that it was too soon to be able to verify that test scores of student achievement had been improved by the privatizing efforts, let alone making valid comparisons with "regular" public schools that are endowed with similar physical and personnel conditions. Nevertheless, AEI was teaming up with developers in the Phoenix area to build and run charter schools in new suburban developments. (Education Week, April 16, 1997)
Perhaps the largest and by common consent the most praiseworthy of recent joint educational reform projects is exemplified in the nearly 1,000 schools that are affiliated with the Coalition of Essential Schools, created and run by Theodore Sizer in his headquarters at Brown University. I cannot make judgments about the attention that those schools give to civic education, but I do not find specific mention of a civic purpose in the Nine Common Principles which have guided the Coalition since its beginning in 1984, beyond "promoting trust and decency." Nor indeed do I find the civic mission of education prominent in the Annenberg Institute of School Reform which Sizer also heads. The emphasis on evaluation to be demonstrated by student "exhibitions" rather than by tests may mean that coalition schools are reluctant to engage in the movement for national standards and national assessment. Sizer himself has long been on record as severely criticizing any national tests beyond reading, writing, and basic mathematics, although he admits that local community service can be a valuable element in the curriculum.
What may be more troubling than the projects that do not specifically try to improve civic education is the growing number of voices that are giving up on the fundamental idea of public education and turning to the private sector to "save" American education from government itself. Chester Finn's incisive writings sometimes carry this sting. In an article in Commentary (September 1996) entitled "Can the Schools Be Saved?" Finn reminds us of the original impulses leading to public schools in the United States and that "the principle of public education runs deep in our society."
But he also reminds us of some of the attempts to reform and revitalize American education through vouchers and privatization in which he himself believes. And then he goes on to say that "public education ought not mean government-run schools. Society's obligation is to see that instruction is provided and that learning occurs. It is not to operate a bureaucratic system of uniform institutions staffed by government employees....Ending the present monopoly of the bureaucrats and the unions would liberate thousands of capable educators to break with the orthodoxies of their profession and create schools that parents might actually want their children to attend." Somehow, Finn argues that this freedom would transmit the sense of a common civic culture more effectively than would reform of the curriculum and of teacher education along the lines of the National Standards of Civics and Government. He seems to think that "a panel of respected civic, business, and intellectual leaders, privately constituted" could frame a core curriculum of national unity better than "academic experts" could do. However, Finn does believe in the efficacy of national examinations and, as a member of the governing board of NAEP, he eventually agreed to the structuring of the 1998 NAEP test of civics and government on the basis of the national civics standards, which indeed was drawn up by privately constituted panels.
While Finn and other conservatives were touting the values of privatization, some liberals were arguing against privatization as a genuine threat to public education. For example, the Twentieth Century Fund published a research study by three New York University professors entitled "Hard Lessons: Public Schools and Privatization" in October 1996. They found that the highly publicized efforts of private groups to manage public schools had not raised student achievement, lowered costs, or resulted in more equal opportunity for underprivileged families. The Edison project was not included in the study because such data were not available. The report was sharply criticized by Finn, Denis Doyle, and other conservatives who charged that its conclusions were predictable because of the political leanings of the authors.
While the debates continued for and against privatization and the research results were at least mixed, the debate was sure to continue. Soon after the Twentieth Century Fund report was announced, the Edison project received another $30 million, bringing its total investment to $100 million and assuring a continuation of the experimentation with the dozen elementary and secondary schools it was operating during its second year of operation. I do not have first hand acquaintance with the Edison schools, but I do note that one of its earlier designs gave considerable attention to history and civics and the social sciences, including lectures on the Constitution by Benno Schmidt, the Edison director and former president of Yale.
As the year 1996 came to a close, a new organization gained considerable publicity through a C-SPAN program featuring its conference in Arlington, Virginia on December 24, 1996. The name of the organization, whose headquarters are in Fresno, California, makes its mission quite clear: the Separation of School and State Alliance. The government must be kept out of education, and the state education system of public schools should be broken up and placed in private hands. The speakers reflected a conservative and religious alliance that found public schools dominated by liberal and statist elites and by labor unions whose goal is to get the most money for the least work; they have taken values out of the schools. Goals 2000 is a federal attempt to wipe out diversity and religious values; its national standards and assessment goals must be resisted with the motto: "Government is not God."
And, from a rather unexpected quarter, the Educational Forum of Kappa Delta Pi (Winter 1997) carried a series of articles that seemed to praise efforts to undermine the historic value of universal public education in common schools, An article entitled "Black-Flight Academies: The New Christian Day Schools" concludes:
...black evangelicals of the 1980s and 1990s are reconsidering their historic commitment to public education...to establish and support schools they believe will meet the academic and spiritual needs of African-American children....Clearly, the growth of these schools testifies to a robust, conservative Christianity in the African-American community and a profound disillusionment with public education. It remains to be seen whether autonomous, faith-driven black-flight academies are transitory or will become permanent features of the U.S. educational landscape.Another "escape" from the historical system of public education was the Kappan article entitled "Compulsory School Attendance: An Idea Past Its Prime?" in which Barry McGhan argues that the logical conclusion of the choice movement is that
"The era of U.S. compulsory education is perhaps coming to an end.,,,Compulsory school attendance is a 19th century idea that has apparently outlived its usefulness....Public schools play an essential role in...providing students the educational foundation for the preservation and development of constitutional government and democracy....Eliminating compulsory attendance will help preserve public education for future generations and eliminate the need for the most divisive proposal for school choice--public vouchers for private schools--because safety and order will be available in every public school, which would essentially become a magnet or charter school....Making K-12 public school attendance voluntary will truly make education a matter of choice."And what will happen if parents happen to choose schools that do not think that teaching for civitas is important, but prefer a school that concentrates instead on teaching the best way to reach the "Gates of Heaven" or to gain sovereign independence for the Republic of Texas?
The "Education Summit," which was held in March 1996 at Palisades, N.Y., called by the state governors and by business interests, reaffirmed its support for high academic standards, but insisted that they be drawn up at the state and local levels, thus departing from the earlier summits that had stressed the importance of common standards throughout the country. Instead of a bipartisan national council to approve state standards as they were drawn up as provided in Goals 2000, the summit agreed to establish a non-governmental clearinghouse to spread information and assist the states in their efforts. This clearly meant that academic standards are the business of states and localities, not the federal government.
The business and governors' summit forecast the budget agreements that were worked out in the appropriations bill passed by Congress and signed by the President at the end of April 1996. The bill deleted several controversial ingredients of the Clinton administration"s Goals 2000 plan which had been attacked by conservative Republicans. It eliminated the proposed National Education Standards and Improvement Council and removed the provision that set requirements for what states must include in their school improvement plans when they are submitted to the Secretary of Education asking for federal funds to promote high standards. And it included a "parental rights" provision that Goals 2000 will "not require or permit any state or federal official to inspect a home, judge how parents raise their children, or remove children from their parents."
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