Among the many problems created for this country by Clinton, one of the most worrisome is his deliberate misrepresentation of the role of the president in American government. Traditionally and constitutionally, many of the president’s responsibilities lie in the realm of foreign and military affairs. Unqualified to play many of the constitutionally-assigned presidential roles (a draft-dodger as commander-in chief?), Clinton managed to change the job description. Throughout the 1992 campaign, Clinton talked as if he was angling, not to be president, but to be governor of the United States. His myriad campaign promises almost invariably meant deeper federal involvement in areas the Constitution leaves to the states.
To his credit, President Bush has given a high priority to the Constitutionally-mandated responsibilities neglected by Clinton. Unfortunately, when it comes to domestic policy, Bush, like Clinton, is acting like America’s governor rather than her president.
This is particularly clear when it comes to education.
Bush has proposed a substantial increase in federal education spending. But the price? Schools must institute annual testing of students. Further, if a school does not show an improvement in test scores over a three-year period, they lose their federal funds.
This is a recipe for disaster for all sorts of reasons.
First of all, tying funding to test scores is a guaranteed way of ruining schools. Some of my Sacramento-area friends are finding out first hand just how bad test-score dependence is. Their kids get nothing in school but reading, writing, and mathematics. No social studies. No science. No art. No music. Why? Because their schools’ scores fall below certain district-mandated standards. And until the scores are up, the district won’t allow anything but “basics.”
Bush’s plan will give us more of this kind of nonsense: all over the nation, school districts will end up focusing on nothing but the so-called basics.
The problem is that, while students following a “basics-only” curriculum may eventually do ok on standardized tests, they don’t really learn even the basics. A student who doesn’t know how to read a science or social studies text doesn’t really know how to read. A student who doesn’t know how to apply mathematics in the sciences and in the fine arts doesn’t really know mathematics. A student who can’t write up a science or history project doesn’t really know how to write.
Bush justifies his program by telling us that schools have to be accountable.
Well, of course they do. But to whom?
Test score mania is fostered by the faceless bureaucrats who dominate both state and federal departments of education and who, unfortunately, tend to have the ear of both Republican and Democratic governors when it comes to education. These high-paid administrators rarely contribute anything positive to education—but they like to pretend they do. So they love numbers, and they love forcing teachers to generate numbers that will make them look good.
Schools owe nothing to these number-crunchers.
Instead, schools should be accountable to parents, students, and the local community—groups that, invariably, have sounder judgment as to what a local school should be doing than state and federal bureaucrats.
But even if all this were not so, there’s a real problem with Bush’s education proposal: Federal interference in education is a major violation of the Constitution—and Bush knows it. He knows, for instance, that Congress cannot directly mandate nation-wide achievement testing. So he skirts the Constitution. In the same way that Congress uses its control of highway funds to usurp state and local control of traffic laws, Bush wants to use federal education money to take away local control of the schools.
We deserve better from our presidents. The oath to uphold and defend the Constitution obligates them to uphold the spirit as well as the letter of the fundamental law of the land.
And before we try to make our schools accountable, we ought to make our presidents accountable.
Perhaps we should tie their paychecks to some sort of standardized