At a time when Americans place the highest priority on improving the quality of education, bold and imaginative programs are necessary for us to obtain the best schools in the world.
Yet, at today's United States Department of Education the only boldness one will find is in legally questionable political meetings that senior officials have been conducting with inside-the-beltway lobbyists who have thrived on the mediocrity of our current education system.
A just-issued report by the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, a public interest research group on whose advisory board I serve, offers disturbing insights about these meetings and how they have helped President Clinton pummel his opponents on education issues over the past year.
When Republicans assumed control of Congress in 1995, the Education Department was running scared, concerned that federal programs would be cut or returned to the states. To help thwart this, it convened weekly meetings with lobbyists from the National Education Association, Committee for Education Funding, Council of the Great City Schools, and approximately 40 other groups that favor an expanded federal role in education.
By the fall of 1996, the education debate had radically shifted and the Republican-controlled Congress felt pressured to provide the department with $763 million more than even the president requested for the 1997 budget.
The meetings are held weekly, while Congress is in session, take place in the secretary of education's conference room, and are attended by the second-in-command at the Education Department and other senior department officials. During these sessions, political intelligence is shared and strategies developed on how to advance the Clinton administration's education agenda.
The meetings raise questions relating to the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), which governs how a federal department can regularly seek advice from outside parties. Among other requirements, FACA stipulates that meetings must be announced in the federal register. That hasn't occurred for these sessions. FACA is the statute under which the closed-door meetings of the president's health care task force were successfully challenged.
Paul Steidler, director of the Tocqueville Institution's Education Reform Project, found out about the meetings. With reluctant permission from the department, he attended them throughout this year. He has seen officials and lobbyist allies place a high priority on crushing school choice, funneling more money to the department's budget, and promoting national testing.
According to Mr. Steidler, during the first meeting in January, discussion arose about a proposal by Sen. Paul Coverdell (R) of Georgia that would provide $50 million to allow children from drug-ridden, crime-infested schools to receive low-income scholarships, or vouchers, to attend the schools of their parents' choice.
The proposal, and the children who would benefit from it, were mocked at the meeting. After one participant exclaimed, "Yeah, the fear voucher," and another boomed, "You get it if you're scared," there was loud and sustained laughter. Steidler, understandably, found this chilling.
The opposition to school choice was also apparent in the groups' resolve to prevent enactment of tax-free savings accounts for elementary and secondary education, another proposal by Senator Coverdell. A similar effort was made to prevent a $150 tax-credit proposal from Rep. Ben Cardin (D) of Maryland that would assist parents of public school children who seek after-school tutoring.
Promoting the president's national testing proposals and securing high amounts of appropriations have been key concerns of the group.
These meetings, and the Washington-knows-best mentality that pervades them, stand in stark contrast to bold - and positive - initiatives across the country that offer true hope for education reform and making our schools the best in the world.
Honorable boldness can be found in the teachers and administrators who have helped to found 700 charter schools across the country since 1991. These schools, free of burdensome union rules and government regulations, provide opportunities for students and teachers to thrive by removing administrative and bureaucratic distractions.
Honorable boldness also is found in the thousands of low-income parents in Milwaukee and Cleveland who have successfully campaigned for scholarship proposals that allow their children to immediately obtain a better education by attending private schools.
Honorable boldness is found in the leadership of Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, who is working to ensure that high academic standards will be developed locally and shared nationally through the ACHIEVE project. ACHIEVE is a resource and support center to states, helping them to raise academic standards, improve assessments, and increase accountability.
More positive reform needed
Much work remains to be done. We need to provide merit pay throughout the country so that our best teachers are paid more - in some cases a lot more - and so that more young people will be attracted to the teaching profession in the coming years.
We need to provide greater choices among schools, especially for busy parents and the 70 percent of households with a working mother. These parents should have the opportunity to send their children to schools that are open from sunrise to sunset, accommodating the parents' schedules.
It is distressing that while much needs to be done, and so many good ideas and practices are being put in place across the country, the Education Department is focused on working with special interest groups to perpetuate the status quo and deny choice to the parents of America's schoolchildren.
* Lamar Alexander is a former US secretary of Education and governor of Tennessee.