WASHINGTON -- Every school in America will be safe, disciplined and drug-free. U.S. students will be first in the world in science and math achievement. Every adult will be able to compete in a global economy.
Who can argue with a vision like that?
Under the Goals 2000 program signed into law by President Clinton last week, that is the government's grand hope for
America on the verge of the 21st century.
The program, hailed as the federal government's first effort to create standards for what all students should know, emerged from the education summit that President George Bush held with governors in 1989. One of its chief architects was the governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton.
The summit agreed the education crisis was so serious that Washington should step in to lift the nation's schools out of "mediocrity, social decay and national decline," as Mr. Bush put it.
Yet for all its promise, some critics wonder whether Goals 2000 will have much effect at all.
States are not required to accept the federal standards. Federal money for the program -- $100 million this year -- represents a negligible slice of local education costs. And no new money is provided for books and materials for already-strained school systems.
"There are some who are concerned that if you just set high standards for kids, and you don't set high standards for schools, then the inevitable result is, you'll raise the high jump bar and not do anything to repair the ability to jump over it," acknowledged Mike Cohen, a senior adviser to Education Secretary Richard W. Riley, who has been championing the program.
Voluntary standards issued
Under the program, the federal government will issue voluntary standards for students in math, science, history, geography, the arts and foreign languages.
States may accept the national standards or write their own. Mr. Cohen said he expects virtually every state to engage in some reform.
As an inducement, Washington is offering grants to states to help finance the cost of drafting and implementing content and performance standards and improving the professional development of teachers.
Given the school reforms it is already carrying out, Maryland can expect about $1.5 million this year and $10 million in each subsequent year.
But critics have noted that while Goals 2000 asks states to set high benchmarks for achievement, it does not require them to supply the tools -- the computers, the modern textbooks, the highly trained teachers -- necessary for serious reform.
It is a "hoax," said Dale Lestina, senior lobbyist for the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, to set academic standards without similar scrutiny of curriculum and resources.
"One of the goals is that the U.S. will be first in the world in math and science by the year 2000," Mr. Lestina said.
"You can pick any state and go into a rural school. . . . Many of those schools won't even have a laboratory. How will they have the opportunity to learn?"
Supporters, such as Patricia Sullivan, a policy analyst for the National Governors' Association, respond that such issues can be addressed later.
If students fail to meet the more rigorous standards, she suggested, "you can then go in to figure out why kids aren't learning, instead of having a checklist" on what each classroom should provide students.
Stricter language dropped
The bill passed by Congress tries to strike a compromise. It asks states to draw up strategies for providing students with the resources they need. Stricter language that might have forced states to carry out those strategies was dropped.
The NEA supports Goals 2000, although it is disappointed that the program does not guarantee that teachers will have new resources. The program has also been endorsed by such business groups as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable.
Supporters note that the United States, which has a long history of locally governed school systems, is one of the few industrialized nations with no national academic guidelines.
But Mr. Riley, the education secretary, knows that by creating a plan with no mandates, the administration risks appearing to be doing virtually nothing even while providing money: President Clinton is seeking $700 million for Goals 2000 next year and $1 billion each year after that.
"Now, people tell me that calling for a voluntary approach to education reform is a little like voting for inertia," Mr. Riley said in a speech last month.
But, he said, "the federal government cannot mandate education reform. How would a rigid, one-size-fits-all, packaged-in-Washington approach meet the unique needs of the thousands of different schools in the country?"
Ron Peiffer, a spokesman for the Maryland school superintendent's office, said the program appears to complement what Maryland is already doing. But having more money from the federal government, he said, could help speed the reforms.