The Bulldozer Strategy for Education


DEFENDING the most recently unveiled cuts of $135 million in federal educational aid for elementary and secondary programs, a spokesman for the Department of Education said the damage would be "minimal in relation to the overall effects that budget reductions will have on the economy." Saying the cuts "won't be painless, but won't be as painful as some people make them out to be," the spokesman reaffirmed the Reagan Administration's rationalization of its attack on education: We aren't abandoning education. The federal government had done its bit and must now pass on the responsibility to individual states. Education has been lucky to get so much.

None of this is new, but by ceaselessly repeating their twisted argument the Reaganites have shifted the entire context within which the debate over education funding takes place. Rather than discuss whether students should have unlimited access to federal Guaranteed Student Loans (GSLs)--a philosophical argument they consistently lost all winter--the would-be budgetary revolutionaries use severe publicity and bureaucratic bluster to dissuade substantial numbers of students from even applying for aid. Then they point to the dropping loan figures as an example of conservative belt tightening. Rather than justify each separate funding reduction, the Administration emphasizes that any aid granted is a luxury.

A lot of people have apparently been duped. The substantial drop in loan application noted recently was claimed by the Right as a victory. The many non-needy GSL users had simply phased themselves out, argues the White House. In fact, the trend probably results from the Washington bureaucracy's filling the winter months with widely varying threats as to what exactly would happen to the loan program and then creating a substantial log jam by delaying the release of eligibility tables used by most admissions officers. Colleges, already receiving aid applications for the 1982-83 term, could not process applications until mid-May. The ensuing confusion almost certainly scared many families away from the loan maze altogether. With the confusion came a deeper uncertainty--the one Reagan sought all along--over whether poor students have any reason or right to expect support in the first place. Harvard's March applicant pool revealed a sharp drop in the number of working-class students seeking an education in the Yard.

THE REAGAN PROPAGANDA campaign seems particularly dramatic because of the nation's traditional respect for education. People are accustomed to blaming and blessing "America's commitment to education" for a host of sociological circumstances, from up ward mobility to crowded professional job markets to the existence of "diploma mills." A few voices have complained that one reason for economic confusion and disproportionate educational spending is this peculiar idea that every member of society should be able to go to college. The belief was strengthened by increasing attention to diversity in admissions and the Carter Administration's more comprehensive financial aid policies. Though inimical to Reagan's conception of society, that theory has on the whole withstood scrutiny.

It is partly coincidental and partly a natural development that in the year when the principle of equal opportunity is fading from the public consciousness, education has suffered several other attacks related to the dilemmas of opportunity and access. Among the thousands of non-competitive or "open-admit" colleges in the nation, those not struggling to keep their doors open have begun to wrestle with the realization that great numbers of their applicants are simply not prepared--for college or for most jobs.

Assuming that the more highly motivated college bound crowd is only the tip of the iceberg, educators have acknowledged grimly that virtually nothing is being taught in the vast majority of public high schools. Hence the "basic competency" movement, which, though designed to evaluate high schools by granting diplomas only if students pass a battery of publicly sponsored tests, is much , more severe in its immediate effects.

In New York, which hosts one of the largest school systems to adopt a basic competency program, the outcry against the tests has focused inevitably on equal opportunity. The hapless 17-year-olds stuck in seventh grade for he third or fourth time, critics have cried, are being denied their rights under a system penalizing them for learning little from schools that can barely teach literacy. The perfectly serious effort to defeat the "right" to a high school diploma, even for someone who cannot read or write, baffled many equal opportunity supporters and did damage to equal opportunity as an ideal.

The competency debate has its analogues in the shift towards more stringent college admissions requirements for instruction in specific subjects and in the thorny issues of equal access raised by the exodus of-well-off families from public to private schools. Reagan, clearly, would have no qualms about stringent basic-competency programs. Chances are, he would argue that such "survival of the fittest" strategies and the resulting drop in unprepared college students would solve the college competency problem far more efficiently than would struggling to improve the high schools. Conditioned to view education as yet another marginal social program draining the federal pocket, more and more people would be likely to agree with him.

"CERTAINLY, New York public schools are in serious trouble," Fred Hechinger, the New York Times education editor, angrily told a frosty private-school audience in 1981. "So is the Transit Authority. But none of you is about to say to the people of New York, "Let them ride limousines.'" Hechinger spoke from the era when, whatever education's difficulties in execution, the underlying philosophy required a relentless drive for improvement. The post-World War Two birth of the equal opportunity principle took place in a period of increasing funding and optimism. Practical difficulties which later emerged seemed for years to herald not collapse but maturity, a challenge which would lead to regulation and compromise. Basic competency, like the earlier experiment of affirmative action, was advanced and has taken root in the hopes of fighting things through, turning things around, preserving the basic assumption that compromise will produce progress. Informed tinkering would work if circumstances and politicians were not conspiring just now to attack the foundation on which America's education is built. Seeing an institution undercut just as it seems about to attack its problems is doubly tragic; Reagan, it seems, knew just when to bring in the bulldozers.

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