By Dick Brewbaker
Essentially, there was a three-part effort to sell Goals 2000 in the State of Alabama by its various supporters and by the U.S. Department of Education.
Their first argument was that "everybody else is already doing it." "If it's good enough for the 48 states that are involved in Goals 2000, then it's good enough for the U.S. Department of Education and it ought to be good enough for you."
Their second argument was, "Alabama is a poor state. There's $14 million on the table and you ought to take it."
Third, and this is the line that was given to us most consistently by the United States Department of Education: "There are no strings attached to this money. This is not part of an intrusive federal agenda; just take the money. We just want to help you with your school reform."
If all this were true, then why did Governor James reject Goals 2000?
As the elected head of Alabama, he recognized that it was terribly unpopular in our state. Governor James, and the people who voted for him, did not like the agenda represented in the Goals 2000 Educate America Act of 1994. Both Houses of the Alabama Legislature passed resolutions calling for the repeal of Goals 2000. Not only is this act unpopular in Alabama, it's my view that it is unpopular nationally. So the first reason Governor James rejected it is that the people who elected him didn't want it.
Second, and probably the most compelling reason, was the way the document itself was written. Michael Cohen of the U.S. Department of Education came down to Alabama to pour oil on our troubled Goals 2000 waters. He met with the Governor's legal advisor and the Governor's chief financial officer. As a member of the Board of Education, I was at the meeting. He kept telling us that there are no mandates in the Act, but when you look at it, there are 63 places where the Act says that states who participate will do something, and 195 places where it says states shall do something. There are 33 requirements listed for participating states, and 13 things states must do if they participate. Whenever we would point these instances out to Assistant Secretary Cohen, he always told us the same thing: "Don't worry, we're not going to enforce those sections of the Act. You don't have to do it, just take the money." I thought the Governor's lawyer was going to have apoplexy when that sort of language was presented to him.
The problem is that in Alabama we have tried to ignore federal statutes before and it always lands us in exactly the same place-a federal courtroom with a federal judge telling us that we will comply with the law.
I have a letter from a special education advocacy group telling me, as Governor James' Education Liaison, that we are required by the Goals 2000 Act to set up parental assistance centers. I think I'm going to send this to Secretary Cohen and ask him if I have to do it. The point is, there are plain, clear mandates in the Act.
The mandate that most concerned the Governor was the creation of a National School Board with the authority to certify the state's contents standards, performance standards, and assessment standards. It's the same as saying you are going to have a national board to determine what you teach (your content standards), what you want students to be able to do ( your performance standards), and how you assess them. What that means is, the federal government is now going to begin the process of controlling what is taught in the classroom. Governor James rejected this sort of intrusive federal agenda.
The Governor rejected Goals 2000 because of its potential impact on state funding. We were eligible for about $14 to $15 million under Goals 2000. If we were to begin to comply with all the mandates in the Act, the lowest projected cost figure that I saw was $400 million. That's just in Alabama, in a small rural state.
The federal government has been eroding state control of education for a long time through the funding process. We get about 1/5 of the money to run our vocational technical programs from the federal government, and we have to run the entire program according to federal mandates. The same statistics would hold true, particularly in special education, because that is the fastest growing item in most local school system's budgets. About 1/5 of the money comes from Washington, but the whole dollar has got to be spent according to federal mandate.
That's a problem. Under Goals 2000, for 1/2 penny on the dollar, we would begin the process of vesting in the federal government control over content, performance and assessment standards. Governor James thinks that's a very bad idea.
Thirdly, we were wary of the impact on our state's school reform. Beware of the U.S. Department of Education bearing gifts. They said Goals 2000 money would help us with school reform. Well, we had already completed school reform in Alabama. The toughest high school graduation requirements in the United States are in Alabama. We have begun a process of comprehensive school reform that the people of Alabama support. Goals 2000 forces a specific kind of school reform which may or may not work in individual states.
In Alabama, Goals 2000 was completely inappropriate for what the taxpayers wanted. It does not promote grassroots school reform. The Goals 2000 Educate America Act promotes a specific federal agenda which, in my view, and more importantly, in Governor James' view, is a bad one.
Federal Standards Are Bad, Too
Finally, there's a great deal of concern in our state over federal standards as opposed to federal goals. You've heard about the broad goals of the Goals 2000 Educate America Act, which do not really mean anything; the important part is the federal standards.
We have a problem in this country that Governor James calls "government by advocacy." Advocacy groups not only push an agenda, they create it. It usually doesn't result in good public policy. If there ever were a case where that's true, it's in the national standards promoted under the Goals 2000 Educate America Act. You've probably read about the U.S. History standards. They were so bad that the Senate denounced them by a vote of 99 to 1. Why? Because they had a lot more to do with "political correctness" than with historical truth.
If this is the best that we're going to be able to do, then national standards, as suggested in Clinton's State of the Union address and in the Goals 2000 Educate America Act, are a very bad idea.
If Congress wants to promote good school reform and high standards, Congress should return power to the states and encourage the states to return power to local school boards.
My last point is very important to Governor James, and so obvious that I almost hesitate to mention it. It is this: people in government-and I've had the same thought myself since I started working for our Governor-see a problem, and then their impulse is to try to fix it. Because our motives are good and our plans are often well laid, we believe everything will work out all right. But that's not necessarily true, is it? That's why we're in the middle of a welfare reform debate, because people with good plans and motives tried to do a good thing and wound up hurting a lot of people. So now we have to do it over.
Children fundamentally and always belong to their parents. They never belong to the state. Nothing is more fundamental than how we educate our children. We need to have parents involved. President Clinton says he wants parental involvement. But if we take decision-making authority away from the local level and put it at the federal level, how are we going to get significant, meaningful parental involvement? We can't have it both ways. If government wants parents involved, then parents must be allowed to make an impact. Millions of parents either homeschool their children or send them to private or parochial schools, because they know that their voices will be heard, their values respected, and their concerns addressed. They know that the traditional pursuit of academic knowledge will be the order of the day in homeschool classrooms, instead of a "politically correct" agenda mandated by the federal government.
It is an exceptionally bad step to move authority away from the local level, away from parents, and place it in Washington. We have to put the responsibility for educating our children where it belongs-on the parents and local communities that nurture them. This, more than any other reason, is why Governor James is unalterably opposed to the agenda contained in the Goals 2000 Educate America Act.