SECRETARY of Education Lamar Alexander is shaking the department out of its headline lethargy. He may even give the Bush administration a domestic policy. And happily for the nation, he seems to understand that the quality of education is not measured by how much it costs.
But the contradictions that have marked conservatives' education policies for a decade are still evident in Alexander's plan. His two major proposals are to create a national student achievement test and to give parents more choice in where to send their children to school -- to centralize and decentralize at the same time.
As education consultant Lawrence Uzzell has pointed out, school reformers can generally be grouped into two camps: neo-pluralists and neo-centralists. Neo-pluralists believe decisions about education should be made by parents, teachers and principals, and they support plans for school choice like vouchers and tax credits. Neo-centralists, harking back to the Progressive Era of the early 20th century, believe the current system can be made to work with strong leadership and comprehensive reforms drawn up by state or federal officials.
Both camps were represented in the Reagan administration. It promised to reduce federal regulation -- even to abolish the Education Department -- and to encourage choice plans, but also to restore prayer to public schools and to promote a national curriculum. The confusion between the centralist and pluralist agendas may have been partly responsible for the lack of real progress in education in the 1980s.
Today, with growing recognition that American schools are operated as a bureaucratic monopoly, the neo-pluralists would seem to be in the stronger intellectual position. Dismay over the failures of public education has caused the spread of plans promoting school choice.
But the drive for national tests and a strengthened Education Department attests to the lingering attraction of the centralist model. Since the Progressive Era, the assumption has been that experts in centralized offices would design the best schools. The number of districts fell from 100,000 in 1946 to 18,000 by 1970, and most districts became far too large for any real parental involvement. Spending on education has soared -- pre-pupil expenditures have quadrupled in real terms since World War II -- yet the declining quality of education has become a national scandal.
The public schools have failed because they are essentially socialist institutions: one system for the entire society, centrally directed and managed, with little use for competition or market incentives.
And, much like Soviet factories, the schools have become backward, overstaffed and unresponsive to consumer demand, operated instead for the convenience of bureaucrats. With every year, they become more incapable of keeping up with the needs of a dynamic, diverse society.
National achievement tests won't bring about the decentralization that schools need. Formal standards for what students should know would lead all schools to teach the same subjects at the same time, as early as the fourth grade. Children have varying abilities, and they naturally learn in spurts while focusing on subjects that interest them. Schools should accommodate their needs rather than create a one-size-fits-all curriculum.
But letting schools experiment doesn't fit the mechanistic models of the testers. Tests designed by experts are a relic of the era when intellectuals believed that centralization, professionalization and bureaucracy were the way to organize an extended society. Matching schools to the needs and interests tTC of children will never be done by pilot programs directed by the Education Department, nor will diversity be encouraged by national tests. What is needed instead is the diversity and individualization engendered by a free market.
Conservative reformers need to make up their minds: Do they want choice and decentralization, or national tests and standards?
David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, is editor of "Liberating Schools: Education in the Inner City."