January 25, 2001

When I began this column more than 26 years ago, I wanted to write about economic concepts and principles as well as economic conditions and opportunities. In that vein I would like to discuss the education proposals of President Bush, for which I see some very significant principles being developed.

The broad concept of what role government should have in educating its citizenry is not really addressed. That is understandable. We have assumed that government should be involved in insuring that its citizenry receive educational opportunities for some time.

I very much agree that for the U.S. government compact to work, children must not be condemned by the economic shortcomings of their parents. Otherwise we will develop an underclass that will have little opportunity to rise from that status. Making sure that the children of even the poorest families can have access to education can open opportunities that allow economic class members to change their class status.

Income inequality is larger in the U.S. than in many other countries, but the shift in quintiles of household income over ten year periods certainly is a world leader. The poor can rise up and some rich are cast down.

What President Bush is recognizing is that government provided educational services are not always good services. Should not the federal government step in when state and local governments are fumbling the ball on educational services? Certainly in the past, the U.S. decided that federal intervention was appropriate when state governments did not provide equal protection to all of its citizens.

I certainly believe that President Bush's federalism in education is appropriate.

To achieve appropriate oversight, the federal government must develop measures of accountability. Otherwise, how will they know when they should become involved? There are problems with accountability. Educational personnel may be condemned for inheriting students from uncaring homes. When accountability impacts the teachers and administrators, it must be based upon value added, not a threshold level of achievement.

However, whatever the achievements of the education service providers, the emphasis on the student in Bush's proposals is appropriately placed.

I have always opposed vouchers because I could not see how such a system provided better services for the children who still could not get to alternative schools (perhaps because transportation was lacking). Because resources are limited, widespread vouchers would come at the cost of educational services for those who needed it most.

Instead, I have advocated choice among public schools with applications, scholarships(maybe to overcome those transportation issues), and admissions very much in the spirit of the highly successful public colleges. Those schools which did not receive adequate applications would be shut down and their resources redistributed. That would provide the needed resource reallocation to assure that schools saw their customers as students needing education rather than teachers and administrators needing jobs.

Nevertheless, I could live with the Bush voucher program. I realize that education is not necessarily receiving more resources but the vouchers would go to the students of schools that have failed them. Furthermore, deprived students would receive more resources because funds would be coming from the federal government.

Indeed, the objective is not to distribute vouchers but to improve local delivery of educational services. The hope would be that failing schools would recognize that a wave of vouchers could reduce their student population and put the existence of their school at risk. Their jobs would depend upon serving their student customers.

Furthermore, we would stop pumping resources into schools that cannot effectively use them and start pumping them into students that are not being adequately served.

The success of the Bush proposals would depend not upon how many vouchers are distributed but upon how few are needed.

There is imagination and need associated with the Bush education proposals and I applaud the administration for that.

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