Readin', Writin', and Competitiveness

Now we have a Republican President talking about expanding the federal government's role in education with a program aimed at helping poor children and minorities. Is this the Great Society, Part Two? Not quite.

Whenever the federal government has gotten involved in education, it has been for one of two reasons. One is social change. During the 1960s, President Johnson's Great Society—which included a massive expansion of federal aid to education—aimed to reduce poverty and promote equality. In 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act embodied the "child benefit theory," which held that aid should be targeted at pupils, not at schools.

But the federal government's first great intervention in education came in the 1950s, and for a different reason—competitiveness, which is the other reason government gets involved in education. Americans in 1957 were in a panic after the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first space satellite. Under the National Defense Education Act—the title is revealing—America invested heavily in education in order to make the nation more competitive in science and technology.

Sometimes when he talks about education, President Bush sounds like LBJ. "Together, we will reclaim America's schools before ignorance and apathy claim more young lives," Bush said in his inaugural address. At other times, the language of compassion gives way to the language of competitiveness. "If we can get the education right," he told business leaders at last month's education roundtable, "then we can free up capital to do other things for you."

Education overhauls have often been driven by business. A hundred years ago, progressive business leaders looked to public education to turn unskilled immigrants into a literate and productive industrial work force. During last year's campaign, Bush touted the educational progress achieved in Texas: "In African-American fourth-grade math, we're No. 1 in the nation. In African-American eighth-grade writing, we're first in the nation."

But the real power behind the Texas changes was a business leader named Ross Perot. Today, the business community very much favors the movement for revamping national education. America has a labor shortage. Unemployment is at record lows. Businesses need technically literate workers to help them compete in the new information economy. The global economy has become the new Cold War.

This explains why the core of Bush's education program is standards and accountability. As the President put it: "One of the things I'm going to work with Congress on is to make sure ... accountability and authority are aligned at the local level. Business people understand that simple management principle." The theme of Bush's education initiative, "No child left behind," signifies compassion to most Americans. To the business community, it also signifies efficiency and competitiveness: investment in human capital.

But will a greater federal role in education mean greater federal control? That's where education changes usually hit a wall of resistance. Because education is not just about competitive economic skills—it's also about values.

Progressive reformers such as Horace Mann and John Dewey wanted the schools to promote a common civic culture—democratic values, which were presumably beyond controversy. But the core value of "Americanism" was suspect to some immigrant groups, who saw it as a threat to their religious tradition. In the 1920s, the issue was the teaching of evolution, a controversy that continues to flare up even today. Since the 1960s, sex education has been an ongoing controversy, as have school curricular battles over "political correctness": how to teach about the role of minorities and women in American history, and about gender and sexual orientation in curricula; how to agree on assumptions about America's role in the world, and standards for including literary works in the curriculum.

Competitiveness requires more-aggressive federal standards. What's the point of local control when there's only one Pythagorean theorem, and students all over the country must have the same basic understanding of it? Thus, President Bush promotes a voucher program as a way to make sure that students whose public schools have failed can remain competitive. As he put it last week in his radio address: "Children and parents who have had only bad choices need better choices, and it is my duty as President to help them."

But vouchers invite a controversy over values: Shall tax money be taken from the public schools and used to support sectarian values? Bush appears willing to consider alternative approaches—as long as competitive standards are maintained. "I have my own plan, which would help children in persistently failing schools to go to another public, private, or charter school," he said on the radio. "Others suggest different approaches, and I am willing to listen."

Under the President's plan, the federal government will set standards and leave it to the states to implement them. Interestingly, when former President Clinton talked about national standards, conservatives sounded the alarm. They thought Democrats were trying to impose a curriculum of political correctness on the country. Presumably Bush's standards will be different.