President Bush's proposals for national education initiatives are positive - unless they saddle states with more responsibility but provide no additional resources to meet those challenges, Utah's education leader says.
Bush presented his education reform package to the country Thursday in a dramatic shift from foreign affairs to domestic matters. It is viewed as the first concrete step to fulfilling his pledge to be the nation's "education president."Utah Superintendent Jay B. Taggart saw much in the president's education message to admire. He said Utah is, in fact, ahead of the national agenda in some areas.
The state already has strong curriculum and testing programs in place, has promoted business-education partnerships and is working toward more parental involvement. Utah schools are experimenting with site-based management and other restructuring innovations mentioned by the president.
"Utah is a child-centered state. We love children. That's my whole emphasis as state superintendent. I think we're ahead of the president. We're doing the things he's asking for," said Taggart.
"We will have a problem, though, if they give us a lot more responsibility without more money. Every time a law is passed, it seems there is no money attached."
Such objectives espoused by the president as early childhood education and total literacy could carry enormous price tags.
The same concern has been expressed across the country, and pressure is already building to increase federal funding for education. That would add fuel to Utah's push for more equity in federal funding formulas, Taggart said. The state gets the least federal money per child of any state in the country. Utah's Washington delegation already is working to resolve formula inequities.
The president's objectives could prove counterproductive if they infringe on state and local control of education, Taggart said. There is a dichotomy in proposals that promote site-based decisionmaking while putting more control of education at the federal level, he said.
For instance, one of the president's proposals that has raised red flags among some education groups is the prospect for nationwide testing. Opponents predict a natural drift toward national curriculum if national tests are instituted, and many educators don't like that idea.
David Nelson, Utah's testing specialist, said Utah is leading the country in the development of strong statewide curriculum through its "core" program. The state would lose ground, not gain, in nationalization of the curriculum, he said. Utah would lose flexibility to set its own educational agenda.
Although the president hasn't detailed his national testing proposal, Nelson said most of his peers in the school measurement community are reluctant to accept the concept. Nationally normed tests already available give "an adequate index of Utah's performance against national performance," he said. The state also is participating in some national tests that are still in the development stages.
Taggart said he was intrigued with the president's proposal to provide money at the school level for research, but he had reservations about proposed experiments at privatization of schools. Utah now has few private schools and Taggart fears the public system would be left with education's "problem children" if wholesale privatization skimmed off the cream.
"The profit motive probably doesn't work in the education of an entire population," he added.
The concept of choice in schools also has some prospects of creating "elitist" schools, if not guided, he said. Utah already allows more legal choice options than most, but there is little incentive to move away from neighborhood schools along the Wasatch Front because of pervasive overcrowding.
In summary, the president's involvement will help states "focus attention on what we're doing. That can't do anything but help," Taggart said.