For 32 years, Gerald "Butch" Jordan has helped mold the minds of young people in tiny Hope, Ind. Two generations of farm kids have passed through his English classroom in the squat, red-brick school building surrounded by cornfields. A native Hoosier and son of the firechief in neighboring Columbus, Mr. Jordan is a typical no-nonsense, get-the-job-done midwesterner with little use for bureaucracy or mindless routine.
Yet for almost his entire teaching career, Mr. Jordan has endured the seemingly endless process of curriculum selection at Hauser Jr.-Sr. High School. As successive waves of state standards have come and gone, he's sat on dozens of committees, reviewed hundreds of textbooks, and spent thousands of hours making sure his students would measure up. Despite the bureaucracy and the time involved, it's a process he cherishes.
Thanks to his involvement in curriculum selection, he's been able to ensure that the English textbooks used at Hauser teach the basics of grammar and literature while avoiding educational fads from multiculturalism to political correctness to self-esteem. He's grateful for the freedom to choose books that violate neither the community's conservative mores nor his own Christian beliefs.
"The state approves a list of acceptable textbooks for each subject area," he explains, "and it's pretty doggone generous. Basically any publisher in America can get their books on the list if they want to. Then departments choose their own books from that list at the local level. The school board has to approve, but teachers get what they want most of the time. The only exception would be if I wanted to teach a six-week segment on gay literature or something like that that the community would find offensive."
Far from teaching gay lit, Mr. Jordan decided several years ago that he wanted to teach a unit on biblical literature. When he didn't find any officially sanctioned texts that he liked, he secured a waiver from the school board to do away with textbooks entirely. Students in his class simply study the Bible alone, apart from any interpretation offered by secular publishers.
It's a long way from the open corn fields of Hope, Ind., to the closed society of Martha's Vineyard, Mass., summer playground of the rich and infamous. But last week President Clinton narrowed the gap considerably. Taking a break from his busy golf schedule, the president used his weekly radio address to press the case for his No. 1 priority in September: national standardized testing.
Historically, presidents have always been rather distant figures in American education, whether vacationing on the Vineyard and other spots, or at home in the White House. State and local control of schooling has been a cherished principle since the time of the Puritans, resulting in one of the most decentralized educational systems in the world. Though conservatives resisted the founding of the Department of Education at the end of the Carter Administration, that agency has hardly resulted in the federal takeover of education that Republicans feared. Indeed, despite the growing number of Washington "educrats," only 7 percent of total educational spending flows from the federal government.
But if President Clinton proves more successful on Capitol Hill than he was on the golf course, all that could change. Critics insist that national testing, as innocuous as it may sound, is just the leading edge of a very broad federal wedge that liberals want to hammer into local schools. Behind the thin line of testing, they charge, comes a national curriculum-something that would split apart the current educational system.
Though the teachers' union that claims to represent him supports the testing proposal, Butch Jordan wants the federal government to keep out of his classroom. "They're taking away my professional freedom to evaluate my students and decide what they need to learn," he says of the Clinton testing proposal. "If they just want to say that students at a certain level should know this and this, fine. But I have problems if they start telling you, 'You have to give this test.' What happens is, you start teaching the test, and that dictates the books you use and the material you cover."
This isn't the first time that bureaucrats in Washington have tried to tell people like Mr. Jordan what they had to teach. Under Jimmy Carter, the Department of Education's research arm was quietly developing a national curriculum to be adopted by the public schools. "The Reagan Administration came in and put a stop to that immediately," recalls George Youstra, who was special assistant to the Secretary of Education from 1981 to 1987.
"The difference between the Clinton Administration and the Reagan Administration is like night and day," he says. "We were old-fashioned, 10th Amendment conservatives. We believed in states' rights. Since our Constitution doesn't say anything at all about education, we held that that responsibility lies with the states. I would like to know how this president is going to set up national standards and still maintain local control. I don't think you can have it both ways."
Education Secretary Richard Riley disagrees. "I'm a former governor, and the president is a former governor, and we have complete respect for the state and local role in education," he insists. "But this is the education era, and the future of the country is dependent on the ability of children to master the basics and get a good education." Because of its economic impact, Mr. Riley calls education "a state responsibility, a local function, and a federal priority."
For now, that "federal priority" means setting national standards for fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math skills. The president wants national tests in place by 1999 that would measure how well students are doing in attaining those standards. In his speech from Martha's Vineyard, Mr. Clinton stressed that "high standards are essential to providing our children the best education in the world, and I intend to do whatever is necessary to make sure we move forward."
He seems to mean that literally. Starting with his State of Union Address in February, Mr. Clinton has been moving forward on national testing by bulldozing his way through congressional objections. Claiming that he has the authority to act without legislative approval, the president last April called for specific test-development proposals, and the Education Department hopes to sign development contracts sometime this month and begin field tests next March. Rather than ask Congress to appropriate money for the project, the president wants to use monies already at his control under a little-known program called the Fund for the Improvement of Education.
"This is a clear evasive tactic," says Martin Hoyt, a Washington lobbyist for the American Association of Christian Schools. "Clinton's purpose is to avoid regulation or oversight. It's been a pattern with this administration. Look at GATT, look at NAFTA. Everything he does, he wants fast-track authority with no congressional meddling."
Republicans, however, vow not to be so easily steamrolled, and the testing issue may provide one of the most acrimonious fights of the fall session. Pennsylvania Republican Bill Goodling, chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, has introduced an amendment to the mammoth appropriations bill for the departments of Labor, HHS, and Education that would specifically forbid the president from spending any education funds for the development of national tests. Dan Coats of Indiana is pondering a similar amendment on the Senate side.
Rep. Goodling says the tests, which would cost some $100 million per year to administer and update, are "a waste of taxpayers' money and won't do anything except increase federal involvement in our schools." Claiming that tests alone will improve education is "akin to claiming that better speedometers make for faster cars," he says. Or, in the words of another critic: "You don't fatten cattle by weighing them more often."
It's this simple fact-that testing itself offers no stand-alone benefits-that leads conservatives to fear an ensuing national curriculum. The logic goes like this: National tests reveal what everyone already knows-that American students are falling behind the rest of the world. Experts then decide that the only solution is to impose a national core curriculum that will give students the skills they need to "compete." And even if the threat of a mandated curriculum took years to come to fruition, the very presence of a national test would almost immediately create a de facto national curriculum as teachers adjusted their lesson plans to ensure that their students performed well.
Not even homeschool and Christian-school families would be exempt for long, warns Bob Sweet, a former Christian school teacher now on staff at the House Education and Workforce Committee. "If you developed a national test, then almost by definition, you have to develop training materials to help youngsters achieve the goals that the standards have set. If those goals are not consistent with the goals of homeschoolers or private schools, then you have to request an exemption.
"This is what the Home School Legal Defense Association is doing now. Every time an educational requirement passes Congress, they're up here requesting an exemption for homeschoolers. That's fine, but it can't go on forever. Pretty soon people start to say, 'Wait a minute, you have to abide by the same standards as everyone else does.'"
Those standards are hardly likely to be objective or noncontroversial. For instance, Mr. Sweet says, "it seems like a reading test would be fairly straightforward: Can children read or can't they? But in fact, standards set by the National Council of Teachers of English measure things like whether a child likes reading, whether they have self-esteem, whether they think reading is fun-not whether they can actually read. So [testing] is not an unbiased process. Some of these major power brokers have their own political agenda, and it's not an agenda that most Christian parents share."
The legal history of the testing issue provides scant reassurance for parents. Private schools in Ohio several years ago protested a statewide standardized test on the grounds that they would have to change their curriculum to "teach the test," which would in effect erase a major educational distinctive of private schools. But a judge ruled in favor of the state, forcing the schools to administer the tests whether they liked it or not.
Proponents of testing insist that fears of such a scenario at the federal level are unfounded because the president is calling only for voluntary testing, even for public schools. But the 55 m.p.h. speed limit was voluntary too-on paper, at any rate. In practice, the speed limit was universally adopted because federal highway funds were contingent upon states' "voluntary" cooperation. "The principle," Mr. Sweet says, "is that what is voluntary often becomes mandatory when you have federal funds involved."
Conservatives on Capitol Hill are geared for an uphill battle to make sure that doesn't happen. If only one chamber passes the Goodling Amendment, House-Senate conferees will have to fight to retain the language in the final appropriations bill. Even then, Mr. Clinton could veto the whole $270 billion deal in order to protect his $90 million pet project. In that case, Rep. Goodling plans to introduce a separate resolution to condemn the president for circumventing the will of Congress. An annual battle over continued funding of the test is sure to ensue.
That's a dizzying prospect for education reformers who'd rather focus their energies on serious ideas to improve the nation's schools. Just as they don't want the president dictating local curriculum, they don't want him setting the education-reform agenda.