On September 9, 2005, the American Enterprise Institute held an interesting discussion on the first 25 years of the Department of Education. While there was certainly optimism for a better tomorrow in education, it was clear that no one dared to defend the record during the Department of Education’s Dreaded Silver Anniversary.
This event featured a distinguished panel, which included three former Secretaries of Education: Rod Paige, now at the Woodrow Wilson Institute, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), and William Bennett of the Claremont Institute. The panel also included Andrew Rotherham who was a special assistant to the President for domestic policy during the Clinton administration.
The first speaker was former Secretary Roderick Paige who served in the current president’s first term. Prior to his appointment, he was very much involved in all facets of education policy. He primarily talked about the defining piece of education legislation during his term, the No Child Left Behind Act.
After the event, I asked the former secretary about what he thought would be the projected growth of school choice in the next few years. Paige informed me that the states will have a great deal to do with the speed of reform, though he happily added that school choice is here to stay.
The second speaker was Senator Alexander who chairs the Education and Early Childhood Development Sub-Committee. He began his assessment by describing his student experiences in well-regarded Maryville school district and the disparities in education. What made a lasting impression on me was a unique and politically unrealistic proposal.
His idea was to transform the Department of Education into a structure modeled after the National Security Council. He felt that having an advisor to the president who can coordinate all the programs in the federal government (including those currently outside the Department of Education) would be better than the status quo.
Senator Alexander wants to take the success of higher education to K-12 education. He concludes that competitive aid and local discretion is important to improving the quality of education so that we can compete with China and India in the future and maintain America’s high standard of living.
The third speaker, Bill Bennett, got a quick laugh out of the crowd when he told the crowd a story about how George Will asked him, “. . . in a very George Will sort of way,” about whether the DOE should be abolished. “Must you exist,” Will asked.
He did feel that at least one asset that the Secretary of Education has is the use of the bully pulpit. Because Bennett had the support of President Reagan, he could attract attention as he traveled across the country and informed the public about the status of our nation’s schools.
The bully pulpit did not, however, always work with Washington’s columnists. He got a negative column from David Broder of the Washington Post early in his tenure. He tried to sit down with him, engaging in a charm offensive, and explain his views more clearly. Shortly afterward, he got an even more negative column. Since Broder was in the audience, Bennett got a few laughs with that anecdote.
His remarks were mostly serious; on separate occasions he stated his deep concern that sixty percent of African-Americans in the fourth grade cannot read at a basic level. He felt that because test scores are still below what they were in the early sixties, there is a problem, considering all the money that has been invested in education over the last 25 years.
The last major point Bennett made was that studies do show effective teaching can make a difference. The local area is where the greatest impact is felt, and an effective teacher can move a student from the 50th percentile to the 80th percentile while an ineffective teacher can bring down a student from 50th percentile to the 30th percentile.
The last speaker was Andrew Rotherham; Mr. Rotherham is a co-founder and co-director of Education Center, which is an education think tank. Rotherham is a strong proponent of charter schools and is very skeptical of lowering the Department of Education from cabinet-level status. He echoes the sentiments of other Democrats following Hurricane Katrina that in budget negotiations FEMA lost some of its bargaining power when it was no longer a cabinet-level agency.
Robert Zapesochny is a fellow at the American Journalism Center, a program jointly run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.