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Mrs. Clinton's czarist past.

AFTER A PERIOD OF secrecy, America's health care czar, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, is embarking on a series of public hearings on health care reform.

Before Americans put too much trust in Mrs. Clinton's capacity to sort through the many options before her, they would be wise to reflect on her past performance as Arkansas' education czar.

Ten years ago, Gov. Bill Clinton appointed his wife chairwoman of the Education Standards Committee in Arkansas.

"I don't come at this with a great deal of expertise," she said on the day of her appointment. Then, as now, a lack of expertise did not stand in the way of her making heady plans for activist government.

Mrs. Clinton began her quick study of education in Arkansas by visiting all 75 of its counties. July 6 was a typical day as Mrs. Clinton's committee met for nine hours and heard recommendations from 49 education groups.

Two months later, the Education Standards Committee released its proposed standards. It delved into every aspect of a school's operation -- curriculum, operating policies, student performance, administration, accreditation, and on and on.

The opening page reads: "Every child in Arkansas is entitled to attend a school that meets these minimum standards regardless of the location of the school district."

What follows is an exhaustive list of "shalls." Indeed, this word is used 124 times in the 20-page document. To give these "shalls" some teeth, the standards are backed up by a mandate. Under the Quality Education Act of 1983 any school that fails to meet the standards can be dissolved or annexed by the state.

Reform or Else

It is telling that Mrs. Clinton looked at a public school system already plagued by an excess of centralization and bureaucracy, and proposed to reform it from the top down via a list of demands that required even more centralization and bureaucracy. In addition, her efforts laid the foundation upon which a higher tax structure was built.

In 1983, Arkansas had 367 school districts. To a social engineer, this crazy quilt seemed sloppy and unaccountable. Mrs. Clinton's list of educational "shalls" aimed to reverse this.

Considerable writhing ensued. Some districts merged to comply, but most struggled to remain intact. In 1984, a record 84 Arkansas school districts voted for local millage tax increases in order to meet the standards.

After the tax hikes, Kai Erickson, executive director of the Arkansas Education Association, said: "It is a strong indication that people will generally support education if given the opportunity."

Others viewed this so-called opportunity as a threat. Unless a school district's patrons voted to tax themselves, they lost their local schools.

In early 1984, Clinton used the momentum from Mrs. Clinton's efforts to raise an additional $185 million for education via a state sales tax, an increase of 32 percent in education spending.

But the methods to enforce the educational standards went well beyond taxes. A potent instrument was the state-administered Minimum Placement Test (MPT) given in the third, sixth and eighth grades. The standards mandated that each district pass 85 percent of the students taking the MPT or face the prospect of a takeover.

The test set up perverse incentives. All involved knew their autonomy was at stake. As a result, the system was rigged.

In 1989, a Fourche Valley administrator was censured for giving handwritten excerpts of the MPT to students. This indicated a larger problem. In 1990, Dr. John Jacob Cannell of Friends for Education, an industry watchdog, said he received "a lot of letters from Arkansas teachers who didn't feel right about cheating."

A predictable consequence of this top-down approach was bureaucratization. In September 1987, Benny Gooden, superintendent of the Fort Smith School District, complained of the "intolerable bureaucracy." He claimed it took exactly 11 pounds of paperwork between March and July just to prove his district had complied with the state education standards. "We kept a copy of everything and weighed it," Gooden said.

Attempts to enforce uniformity prompted some superintendents to complain of the tendency to "whip the whole class for the sins of a few."

In the end, bureaucracy served as a fall back for wrongheaded reforms. Teacher testing was to have ensured accountability. In her 1983 legislative address, Mrs. Clinton called this "the real heart" of her education reforms.

Nevertheless, a 1988 Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation survey of parents, teachers and administrators in 73 Arkansas school districts revealed that teacher testing was "the least effective reform by far." To remedy this, in March 1989 a Soviet-style Office of Accountability was established within the state's Department of Education.

Did Mrs. Clinton's efforts as Arkansas' education czar deliver results?

The answer is no, not if we count only favorable ones. The outcome is typical of any centralized and bureaucratized system: Higher inputs (i.e., more tax dollars) did not bring higher outputs.

On Feb. 23, 1986, a report showed that Arkansas' high school seniors scored worse on the standardized American College Test. Mr. Clinton said, "It just doesn't make sense that we would increase the quality and range of instruction, increase teacher pay and have student test scores in lower grades go up while ACT scores decline."

By 1992, Arkansas' ACT scores were up to 20, but this score was a result of the "enhanced" ACT test implemented in 1990 that resulted in a two-point inflation in all states. Adjusted accordingly, the 1992 ACT tests show no improvement over the 1972 average. Scholastic Aptitude Test scores are at a 10-year high, but only 6 percent of Arkansas' high school students take the test.

The state Board of Higher Education claims the core curriculum established in 1983 has resulted in a three-percentage-point differential among students who took the college prep courses. Yet the data on Arkansas college students are discouraging. Last year, 57 percent of all freshmen entering Arkansas colleges had to be given remedial classes in reading, writing or math.

Over the past 10 years, the number of students enrolling in Arkansas colleges has increased by 32 percent, but the graduation rate has increased by only 13 percent.

The trouble extends to the lower grade levels as well. In May 1991, a record high 22 percent of the Little Rock School District's eighth-graders failed the state's Minimum Performance Test.

Just Throw Money

By 1990, Clinton's focus shifted from reforming the educational system to throwing money at it. In 1991, the Arkansas sales tax was boosted again to raise an added $145 million for education. All told, from 1984-92 education spending in Arkansas more than doubled.

What are Americans to make of Hillary Clinton's track record as a reformer?

As Arkansas' education czar, she approached her job as a social engineer who centralizes and bureaucratizes, rather than as a market liberal who respects local autonomy and defers to the wisdom of market forces.

Such an approach spells trouble for America's health care system. Observers contend our health care system is beset by many of the same problems that plague public education -- too much top-down government interference, excessive bureaucratization, perverse incentives and a lack of consumer choices.

To judge by early reports of the options she's considering, these problems will only get worse -- with the same kind of perverse consequences that Arkansas' parents and school children must now suffer.
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Title Annotation:Hillary Clinton
Author:Hurt, Blant
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Mar 29, 1993
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