While conservative Republicans in Congress argue with the Clinton administration about whether to kill the federal Department of Education, a real change in education reform already is taking place at the state level.
The increased conservatism of the legislatures and governors is clearly making a mark. After a decade of state reform efforts centered on setting standards and establishing rigorous tests, the new generation of state leaders is backing away from such efforts and moving more to "free market" models. Over the past few months:
* Indiana retracted its new testing system, based on current ideas about students having to demonstrate they know how to apply what they have learned.
* The pioneering education reform plan in Oregon that requires high school students to show they have mastered content survived a Republican-dominated legislature, but there were strong efforts to repeal much of it.
* The Republican candidate for governor of Kentucky has said that state's new assessment system, considered the heart of Kentucky's reform law, will be an issue in his campaign.
* Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin pushed through an expansion of his voucher plan for Milwaukee, from covering 1,500 students to 15,000. The plan gives students public money to spend at private schools chosen by the students and their parents. While students have been limited to nonreligious schools, the revised plan includes vouchers to attend religious schools as well.
* Ohio passed a similar voucher plan for parents in the Cleveland district. The Ohio and Wisconsin plans are being challenged in court.
* Eight more states recently approved charter school laws -- allowing self-governed public schools broad authority to devise their own programs -- bringing the total to 19 states.
* And it was a Republican governor's idea to put the Chicago system under the control of the mayor.
The change in direction could be seen clearly at a meeting earlier this month of the Education Commission of the States. Established as a compact 30 years ago, its commissioners are all elected state officials, with governors from both parties alternating as chair.
At its annual meeting in Denver, ECS staff struggled to keep the non-partisan lid on. When an opening party at the governor's mansion turned into a party line social -- with Democrats and Republicans at opposite sides of the room, the ECS staff was horrified. "That's just what we didn't want to have happen," lamented one staffer.
Outgoing ECS chair Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, a Democrat, hammered constantly at the need for a continuing federal role in education. "Higher skills and knowledge are essential for my state," he said at every opportunity, and he strongly criticized the "change in direction" at the federal level seen in the proposed budget cuts. But Mr. Thompson, the incoming ECS chair, avoided the issue of the federal role completely.
In fact, if ECS is a barometer, what would have been considered radical or reactionary in times past is now mainstream.
For example, other than Mr. Romer and Department of Education officials, there were few defenders of a significant federal role in education policy. Governors Romer and Thompson, both in their third terms as governor, are among a rapidly dwindling group of governors present at the Charlottesville education "summit" called by President Bush in 1989.
That meeting led to a National Education Goals Panel of state and federal elected officials that was to push the issues of standards and assessments. States were to develop their own goals, but the federal level would help with policies and seed money. These ideas are part of the legislation now threatened by the budget cut proposals in Washington.
When Republican Gov. John Engler of Michigan said at an ECS session on education reform that the federal level was irrelevant, none of the other five governors or assorted reformers on the panel argued with him.
Terry Sanford, former Democratic governor and senator from North Carolina, insisted that "the states are where the job gets done."
The truth, said Susan Traiman, who formerly headed education policy for the National Governors' Association and now directs the education project of the Business Roundtable, "is that what the feds do is not important to these people here." A $4 billion cut in federal education funding spread among the states does not excite them, she said.
Another change was the back-burner status given to equity issues. These once dominated ECS discussions and projects. However, former Texas state Rep. Wilhelmina Delco, ECS's rTC longtime voice on minority issues, could not stir interest in problems of poor and minority children. ECS President Frank Newman, trying to cope with the new conservatism among his commissioners, admitted that "we have to get out of our old affirmative action ideas and get to a new framework." The new equity issue, according to Mr. Newman, is what to do with urban districts.
The disinterest in equity was well illustrated with the reaction to controversial remarks made by Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice of Mississippi. He called for prayer in schools as a way of dealing with the "rot" in society.
Governor Fordice said in inner cities "feral children are running around without the slightest moral guidance. We can't continue to have 12-year-old children having babies for pay." The comments were criticized privately, but no one rose to protest publicly.
The most important addition to the agenda is choice in public education. A few years ago this would have been considered too radical for a consensus among policy-makers. At ECS this year, it was noncontroversial.
Discussions of voucher plans in Milwaukee and Puerto Rico were on the program. Policy-makers wanted to know how to make them work, not if they should be adopted. Governor Romer, whose major concern during his year as ECS chair was quality in higher education, even said he would welcome a charter public college willing to innovate.
Mr. Newman said he was concerned that states would adopt new ideas, such as wide-scale choice or voucher programs, before learning from experience. "We're madly pressing to get states together around issues and be better informed. We want the legislators to go back to their states and say, "Maybe there is a better way to design that voucher plan.' "
The new reform agenda seems to depend on single solutions adopted by the states, observed Ms. Traiman, instead of "hard work in every part of the system." This worries her because, she said, "there is a tendency in this political environment to over-romanticize the ability of states and localities to make the best decisions on education reform." However, "there is no evidence they can."