The times they are a-changing

13th September 1996 at 01:00
How would the Labour party in the UK and the Republican party in the USA change the face of education? William Lowe Boyd assesses the future of reform in both countries. What will happen to national school reforms policies if and when the major opposition parties take control of government in Britain and the United States?

In both countries, this may happen in the near future. However, recent developments indicate that the "loyal opposition" in both countries are revising their positions on national education policies and in surprising ways. What makes this development even more interesting is that, although school reform policies in the two nations have become increasingly similar, the politics behind them have differed.

In the United States, school reforms since 1980 have generally had broad, bipartisan support. British school reform, by contrast, has been highly controversial since 1979, with the ruling Tories and the opposing Labour party very much at odds. This has led to speculation about how much would be changed if and when the Labour comes to power. Despite the heated ideological differences between the parties, however, the Labour party has increasingly, and to a remarkable extent, accepted the policies established in the 1988 Education Reform Act and subsequent related Acts. Since one of the most controversial of all Tory education policies involves opted-out, grant-maintained schools, the decisions by Tony Blair, Labour's leader, and one of his shadow ministers, Harriet Harman to send their own children to GM schools (and some of the most elite ones at that) has made the party's position on education policy even more uncertain.

In the United States, while the Democrats still control the White House (the executive branch), the Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years in November 1994. Because the right-wing of the Republican party has gained control, many features of government policy have been challenged and changed. The bipartisanship characterising education policy over the past ten years suddenly evaporated, as the moderate Republicans who provided this support are now less influential. As a consequence, the "Goals 2000: Educate America Act," passed in March 1994, has been under attack and threat of repeal.

Since this Act represents the most striking example of American bipartisanship in education policy, and holds substantial promise for the improvement of American education, its demise would be traumatic. It is thus ironic that America could see more change in its education policy than Britain, as a result of the opposition parties gaining power.

The major political parties in Britain and the USA parallel each other in many ways: Conservatives and Republicans have much in common, as the love feast between Thatcher and Reagan demonstrated. Likewise, Labour and the Democrats are inclined toward similar philosophies. But, since the mid-1970s, the decline of public faith in the welfare state and the growing ascendance of conservative beliefs have forced both the Labour and Democratic parties to try to reinvent themselves to compete more effectively for middle-class voters. Indeed, efforts by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton to create, respectively, the "New Labour" and "New Democrats" have led some of their supporters to feel that they have moved too far to the right.

These trends, along with what Stephen Ball has called a public "discourse of derision," have de-legitimized "progressive education" policies in both Britain and the USA and changed the focus of the policy debate.

Clearly, ideology and debate over education policy have developed in both countries along a number of parallel lines, despite many significant differences in social and political context.

Indeed, the parallels between the school reform efforts of the Thatcher and Major governments in Britain and those of the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton governments in the United States are extensive and increasing, especially due to the thrust of President Bush's "America 2000" education strategy (announced in 1991) and President Clinton's continuation of this approach in his "Goals 2000" Act. Aspects of Britain's Education Reform Act of 1988, especially its national curriculum and assessment provisions, are strongly echoed in "America 2000" and "Goals 2000".

The responses of the opposition parties to these developments revolve around how much the government or the market should shape education policy, and the proper relationship between central and local (or state) government.

While both the Tories in the UK and the Republicans in the USA share many views and values, they differ dramatically in their attitude toward a strong central government. This difference illuminates important dimensions of the politics of both nations. In the United States, Republicans favor the "least government possible" and wish to see as many aspects as possible of the federal role returned to the states and local government (or simply left undone). The government most feared by Americans today is the federal government.

In stark contrast to the Republicans' deep faith in local government, the Tories - and especially the Thatcherites - seem to mistrust local government and have dramatically increased the powers of central government, especially in education. Of course, differences between the UK and the USA in political history and in the structure of government account for this contrast. From the Tory point of view, local councils and LEAs in England and Wales far too often have been under the control of the Labour party. As Conservatives see it, Labour governments (at whatever level) tend to be wasteful, big spenders, and also policial impediments to the realisation of Conservative goals - especially, the dream of a simultaneous restoration and renewal of traditional British society, one that this time is embedded in an "enterprise culture". Hence, it follows that strategies to weaken local government have been a leading motif of the Conservatives.

Thus, the Tories have accompanied measures of devolution in education with extensive and, some contend, overriding central controls that Republicans would find unthinkable. For example, critics argue that the Tory education policies - especially local management (LMS), centrally controlled funding formulae, and the undermining of the LEAs - have virtually destroyed the democratic local governance of education.

Of course, Conservatives will rightly contend that this view utterly disregards the democratic input of school governors and school staff to governance under LMS.

But, decision-makers at the school site level are viewed by critics as having too narrow a perspective on the public interest, and as being too circumscribed by national regulations to be able to govern in a truly democratic fashion in the interest of the broader community; something they presume LEAs can, or at any rate, ought to do. A dilemma dividing the Labour party, however, is how it should balance its traditional commitment to equity among schools and students against the diversity and potential for inequality associated with public acceptance of LMS, school choice, and GM schools.

In the United States, the attitude of the "loyal opposition" toward local and national government is best seen by examining reactions to the "Goals 2000: Educate America Act."

This Act seeks higher student learning outcomes for all children by encouraging the 50 states voluntarily: * to adopt rigorous standards and curriculum frameworks related to eight national education goals, and * link them to a strong testing or performance assessment system.

Since the November 1994 election, the Goals 2000 Act has been increasingly demonised by right-wing Americans, some of whom seem determined to revive what Richard Hofstadter called the "paranoid style in American politics." Although the Act is replete with references to the voluntary nature of states' participation in the programme, the old bugaboo fear of federal control of education (for example, in selecting curriculum, controlling standards and testing, and using the coercive potential of federal funds) has plagued the Act and caused some of its provisions to be "dead on arrival".

Progress in implementing the objectives of the Act has been slow; a few states have even refused to accept the federal funds to participate in the Act. Finally, extremists on the religious right are continuing a well-organised campaign to undermine support for the Act, by claiming that it seeks to impose alien values and beliefs on children in violation of the rights of parents.

While the Republicans are now in partial control of the federal government in the United States, Labour still must prove that it can again win control of Parliament. With control of Congress, the Republicans already have modified Democratic policies and enacted some of their own preferred policies.

While we wait to see what Labour will actually do if they gain power, the Republicans now face the test of making good on their claims that many federal responsibilities can be "sent home" to the states, and that we do not need a federally-led, comprehensive school reform plan.

Like the splits within the Labour party over how to deal with comprehensive versus selective schooling and GM schools, the Republicans face divisions within their ranks over national standards and comprehensive or "systemic" school reform. Corporate business leaders, whom Republicans tend to count as their own, very much see the need for national standards and systemic reform, but many rank and file Republicans are suspicious of these efforts. It is not clear how Republican strategists will manage this tension.

Ironically, the longstanding mistrust of strong central governments by Republicans and, indeed, many Americans came, in the first instance, from our unfortunate colonial experiences with unresponsive and arbitrary British governors.

Perhaps the differences we see today between Tories and Republicans are only modern re-enactments of the roles their forebears learned in colonial times, with the Republicans resisting central government and the Tories merrily subjugating unruly bits of the United Kingdom.

William Lowe Boyd is professor of education at the Pennsylvania State University. He was a senior Fulbright scholar at the University of Liverpool from 1990-1991 and was recently a visiting scholar at the University of Wales in Cardiff.

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