The Hoover Institution
A nation at risk: 20 years later
By Diane Ravitch
PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Twenty years ago this spring, the National Commission on Excellence in Education served a wake-up call to the nation in the form of a report called "A Nation at Risk," warning that American education faced a "rising tide of mediocrity" unless actions were taken to raise expectations and achievement.
Although the history of American education is littered with reports by distinguished commissions that quickly disappear from public consciousness, "A Nation at Risk" was different. It not only captured national attention, it also set the terms of debate about schooling for a generation after its publication.
The response to the report was truly amazing. Task forces, committees and study groups were convened across the nation to discuss its implications. Most states raised graduation requirements, increased teachers' salaries, and began to look for ways to measure their schools' effectiveness. With its emphasis on improving student achievement, the report led to other reforms, including national goals set by the president and governors in 1990, the standards movement, increased course taking, and market-based approaches.
A product of its time, "A Nation at Risk" proved to be an antidote to many of the pedagogical fads of the 1960s such as classrooms without walls, fluffy electives, and watered-down curricula that generated public skepticism. When it became clear in the mid-1970s that SAT scores had been plummeting for nearly a decade, the public was positively alarmed.
Hungry for a diagnosis that made sense, it embraced "A Nation at Risk." Not only was the report written in plain English, but its emphasis on commonsense reforms such as raising expectations, strengthening the curriculum, improving the teaching force, and lengthening the school year clearly struck a chord.
Two decades later, "A Nation at Risk" remains significant in terms of setting the debate and ushering in an era of reform in education, but its goals have not yet been realized. The changes wrought by 20 years of task forces, committees, and study groups have not produced the hoped-for improvement in student achievement. Few of the commission's recommendations were properly implemented, and many of those that were proved too timid to bring about effective educational reform.
A report from the Koret Task Force on K–12 Education at the Hoover Institution concludes that it is time to go beyond the recommendations of "A Nation at Risk". Created to study the nation's response to "A Nation at Risk" 20 years later, the Koret report lays out a reinvigorated reform agenda for our schools based on the principles of choice, transparency, and accountability: Choice to bring flexibility and innovation to how education is provided; transparency to reveal information about how the education system is working; and accountability to demonstrate that our children are learning.
The challenge before us today, as in the past, is to secure equal educational opportunity. Every American child should have the same opportunities for an excellent education. The real issue today is whether the schools are good enough to prepare students for the challenges of the 21st Century. We cannot rest until they are.
(Diane Ravitch is a distinguished visiting fellow, Hoover Institution, a member of Hoover's Koret Task Force on K–12 Education, and research professor at New York University.)
The National Center for Public Policy Research
(NCPPR is a communications and research foundation dedicated to providing free market solutions to today's public policy problems, based on the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility. NCPPR was founded to provide the conservative movement with a versatile and energetic organization capable of responding quickly and decisively to late-breaking issues, based on thorough research.)
A federal asbestos trust fund: better for victims, better for the economy
By Amy Ridenour
CHICAGO -- Amid the happiness and perhaps relief within the White House that the war in Iraq has been so successful is this unsettling fact: President Bush is re-enacting the political scenario that doomed his father's 1992 re-election bid.
The senior President Bush completed a successful war in Iraq two years and two months after taking office. The current president has matched this timetable, completing his own Gulf War two years and three months into his term. It took 20 months for a poor economy and the inability get an economic plan through Congress to change the first President Bush from "unbeatable" to "beaten."
As Yogi Berra used to say, its déjà vu all over again. With 19 months to go before the election, the younger Bush can't seem to get Congress to adopt his economic plan.
But Bush need not pin all his economic stimulus hopes on a $726 billion tax cut. There's another option: legal reform. Wall Street analysts say solving the legal liability crisis could make the President's proposed dividend tax cut seem like small change.
Says Morgan Stanley's Steven Galbraith: "We can safely say that tort reform would be one of the most positive changes we can imagine for markets. Conversely, lack of progress could be every bit as damaging to market confidence as last year's corporate perp walkathon."
Enter the asbestos litigation crisis, a legal and financial emergency that won't be solved without federal action, but which, if properly solved, could give a huge boost to the U.S. economy, provide better compensation to victims of asbestos-related illnesses, and not cost the taxpayer one red cent.
In short, everybody -- except perhaps lawyers -- wins.
Asbestos-related litigation already has bankrupted over 60 companies and thrown 60,000 people out of work. It may cost the economy more than $300 billion -- by most estimates, more than the war in Iraq.
Scandalously, despite the financial damage, genuine asbestos victims are not being properly compensated. Sixty percent of the awards in asbestos lawsuits have gone to lawyers and court costs, not plaintiffs; 65 percent of the money that does reach plaintiffs goes to people who aren't sick.
The system works well for no one but lawyers. Victims face jackpot justice or none at all, companies -- including many with only a scant association with asbestos -- are facing bankruptcy, employees are being laid off and retirement portfolios are suffering. Wall Street and our entire economy have been hard hit.
The damage now is so bad that congressional compromise is possible. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, says an asbestos bill is a top priority. Democrats, usually shy about legal reform, seem to be concluding that the asbestos crisis cannot be swept under the rug.
But what's the best route to reform? Some propose the establishment of medical standards an asbestos victim must meet in order to sue. But that proposal lacks important benefits.
A far better alternative is for Congress to establish a federal trust fund through which genuinely sick asbestos victims could receive prompt compensation. A trust fund, which should be funded solely by companies facing asbestos lawsuits, would have the following benefits:
-- All funds awarded would go to asbestos victims, not to lawyers, trial costs or healthy people with good lawyers.
-- Victims would receive compensation far faster -- nearly immediately, in dire cases.
-- Victims who become ill from exposure at a bankrupt company would receive the same compensation as a person exposed at a thriving firm.
-- Asbestos-related corporate bankruptcies would cease, as firms would know the exact extent of their legal liability, and could plan for it.
-- Victims would be fairly treated based on their suffering, not on their state of residence or which lawyer they hire.
-- Sick persons could more easily prove eligibility for compensation, as they would not need to prove a specific defendant caused their illness.
-- The economy would receive a substantial shot in the arm, benefiting all Americans.
Heavy, unpredictable legal costs related to asbestos litigation and trial lawyer excesses have undermined business confidence, left business investment and expansion underfunded and undercut America's ability to recover economically from Sept. 11. And this damage has been done without fairly serving those who have been hurt, and who need help.
There's a better way. A privately funded federal asbestos trust fund offers prompt and fair compensation for victims and economic recovery for us all.
(Amy Ridenour is president of the National Center for Public Policy Research.)
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