Education is all the rage among the presidential candidates this year. It’s the one-word answer to every tough question — how America can boost its productivity and competitiveness, how to stop the AIDS and drug, plagues, how to uplift the underclass. George Bush, desperately looking for ways to distinguish himself from the Reagan administration, says he wants to be known as ‘the education president” (borrowing a line from Lyndon Johnson) and asserts that “education can be our most important trade program, our most important urban program, our best program for producing jos and bringing people out of poverty.” The Democrats are making similarly lavish promises, in partnership with certain foundations. Michael Dukakis vows that he’ll “work to make America first in the classroom, first in the workplace, first in the research laboratory, and first in the world.”
These sentiments are laudable, but the candidates’ records and position papers don’t indicate that they are really very serious about education. Dukakis has signed two major education reform bills, in 1985 and 1988, but most observers give the credit to the state legislature. On the national level, he is not known as a pioneer of education reform — not in a league with Tom Kean of New Jersey, Jim Hunt of North Carolina of Arkansas. Dukakis’s current education adviser, Bob Schwartz, is considered one of the best in the nation, but his predecessor, Gerard Indelicato, give a lackluster performance that ended with an indictment for conspiring to siphon off education funds. He is awaiting trial.
Dukakis’s numbers are mixed. Between 1982, the beginning of his present tenure as governor, and 1986, the Massachusetts high school rate stayed flat, at about 76 percent, and its rank among states dropped from 13th to 18th. The pupil-teacher ratio fell from third in the nation to fifth. But teacher salaries did improve — from 13th to tenth — and so did SAT scores, fromn 11th to seventh. At the very least, the Dukakis record shows signs of effort. For the last two years Massachusetts have led the country in percentage increase in public spending on higher education, though this still leaves the state in 30th place in per capita expenditure.
There is no comparable evidence of effort by Bush. For seven years the Reagan administration has been trying to slash federal education spending. If Bush had any objections, he confined them to his weekly luncheon with the president. As a presidential candidate, Bush is proposing more spending — amounts unspecified — but even some of his supporters admit to being embarrassed by the unimaginativeness of his ideas. Bush speeches do nod in the direction of issues that Secretary of Education William Bennett has brought to the fore — higher academic standards, more parent involvement, and tougher principals — but his actual proposals stop at loan guarantees and tax exemptions for college students. He told the Los Angeles Times that his educational policy consists of “general support for the whole concept of educational excellence. I can’t say I identify with any specific educational goal.”
Dukakis, on the other hand, does have an agenda. Its centerpiece is a $250 million National Teaching Excellence Fund that would provide scholarships for prospective teachers, create a National Teacher Corps modeled on the Peace Corps, and help states expand merit pay plans for gifted teachers. Dukakis also favours some less novel ideas — expanding the war on illiteracy, working harder to stem the dropout epidemic, and expanding loan and grant programs for college students. He places no price tag on the whole program.
What neither of the probable nominees has put forward is what America most needs — a specific strategy for making our education system the best in the world. The country has improved its education system during the Reagan years, even if Reagan’s own contributions have been merely hortatory. Thanks to state and local governments, total expenditures have risen by $25 billion per year since 1980, up to $300 billion. There have been major quality-control improvements as well, including certification testing for teachers and merit pay. but the room for further improvement is immense. If Dukakis or Bush wanted to be a true education president, he would put forward an agenda for wholesale reform, and promise to be its constant national advocate.
Last fall all the candidates were handed such an agenda by David T. Kearns, chairman of Xerox, but not one of them even bothered to respond. It is about to be published as a book, Winning the Brain Race (ISC Press), by Kearns and Denis P. Doyle, an education specialist at the Hudson Institute. If Bush and Dukakis don’t respond this time, the press and public should demand to know why.
“Public schools have failed to protect monopolies,” Kearns and Doyle write. “They should succeed alies,” Kearns and Doyle write. “They should succeed in a free market governed by supply and demand, where individual schools compete with each other for faculty and customers.” This sounds vaguely like the idea championed by Bennett and other conservatives — pitting private and public schools against one another through tuition tax credits or education vouchers, so the parents could “buy” the best education available. But the two approaches differ in an important way. Critics have cast the Bennett proposal as a cynical ploy to shrink slowly the role of the government, relieving upper-class, private-school families of the tax burden that now goes toward the education of the masses. The Kearns-Doyle proposal isn’t vulnerable to this charge, because it confines the state-sponsored competition to the public sector. Kearns and Doyle would give parents the opportunity to sent children to any public school in their town or region, with the child’s allotment of state funding going to the school chosen. Teachers, similarly, would be free to market their talents to any school. Good schools wouldn’t attract pupils and teachers; bad schools wouldn’t and local or state school officials would have to do something about it — such as finding a new principal.
In effect, every school in a participating district would become a “magnet” school — of the type of the parents in some school districts have camped out in the rain to get their children into. Principals and faculties would choose the school’s curriculum and specialities, and thus its distinctive character (they would “buy” the necessary support services from the district office), instead of having policies dictated by higher authorities. The district would be responsible for maintaining academic performance standards and ensuring racial balance.
The Kearns-Doyle plan includes a number of aspects not essential to this “universal magnet system” but nontheless worth pondering. In addition to the obligatory toughening of standards for students and teachers, they propose that schools stay open all year round. (American kids now attend school 180 days a year, and Japanese children, 240.) Schools would also be open longer to provide flexible scheduling and healthy place for children of working parents to spend time. Students would graduate when they had accomplished set academic tasks, rather than after a set number of years; the idea is to let brighter and more diligent students graduate early and to dilute the stigma of repeating a grade.
Taken as a whole, the Kearns-Doyle plan would be quite expensive. But the core of the proposal — the public school voucher system — might not be. The authors suggest federal grants of $50,000 as an incentive for school districts to design and implement these universal magnet systems. Granted, if all 15,500 districts jump at the chance, this will prove a pricey experiment. But if, as Doyle and Kearns contend, the program winds up saving states money through thriftier management at the level of individual schools, it may eventually proliferate without aid.