President Bush's new education proposal to transform American schools by the year 2000 was unveiled this week with lots of descriptive words such as "revolution," "crusade" and "renaissance." While it is imaginative and ambitious in many ways, the plan must somehow overcome the enormous inertia of a mammoth education system that often resists change.
The Bush proposal is part experimentation, part a shift in spending, and part politics. The latter includes making sure that at least one of the $1 million grants to create innovative schools is awarded in every congressional district. But the plan relies heavily on private donations as well as federal dollars.For the most part, members of Congress are praising the president's initiative, but some critics are complaining that it doesn't contemplate spending enough money.
Apparently those "spend more" critics do not take the budget deficit seriously. In any case, the responsibility for school finances is more local than federal.
But critics do have a point that rhetoric alone will not revolutionize education and that mere cries for more parental commitment and greater business and community involvement won't by themselves produce great changes. The country has been through such verbal spasms a number of times over the years.
Forty-four action items are included in Bush's proposal. That's too many to outline in detail, but some of the highlights include:
- A voluntary nationwide testing system in English, math, science, history and geography. Colleges would be urged to use the results in admissions and businesses asked to consider the results in hiring. Many teachers have opposed such standard national tests because they do not take into account basic differences in schools and even individual classes
- Differential pay for teachers, including those who perform well, who teach core subjects, who teach in dangerous or challenging settings, or who serve as mentors for new teachers. States should make it easier for people in other professions to become teachers. Both of these ideas have frequently been opposed by teacher organizations.
- Grants to schools that allow parents to choose where their children will attend school. Federal aid for disadvantaged students would follow the student who transfers to a new school under the choice plan.
- Start-up grants of $1 million for 535 innovative model schools. Each community may develop a plan for such a school and state governors would make the decisions. At least one such school would be in every congressional district.
- Establishment of a New American Schools Development Corporation, a non-profit organization, which would award contracts worth at least $30 million each in 1992 to three to seven research teams. The money would be raised by private businesses.
- Job-related skill standards developed by business and labor along with "skill certificates" to accompany these standards. Such certificates would be awarded by the Department of Labor.
Other proposals include using private business to provide technological help to schools; grouping students by skill instead of age; using schools as year-round education community centers for adults as well as children; and the possibility of non-traditional schools, perhaps operated by private entities.
Many of the ideas have been tried by states. In fact, that is where the Bush administration has gotten most of the proposals. But an entrenched public education system will not be easily or quickly changed. And it may take more than the president leading cheers from the sidelines.