Speaking in Dayton, Ohio, yesterday, Barack Obama hit the right rhetorical notes on the current state of education in the United States:

If we want to keep building the cars of the future here in America, then we can’t afford to see the number of Ph.D.s in engineering climbing in China, South Korea and Japan even as it’s dropped here in the United States. We can’t afford a future where our high school students rank near the bottom in — in math and science among industrialized countries, and our high school drop-out rate is one of the highest in the industrialized world.

At times he even voiced conservatives themes on education reform, including:

We need a new vision for a 21st century education — one where we aren’t just supporting existing schools, but spurring innovation.


Now, one one of the things that we’re going to have to do — and this is something that I know sometimes is difficult — but teachers who are doing a poor job, they’ve got to get extra support. But if they don’t improve, then they have to be replaced.

And finally:

This leads me to my final point. As president, I will lead a new era of accountability in education.

As great as all this rhetoric is, the details on how this “new era of accountability” will be brought into reality are extremely vague. For example, Obama criticizes standardized tests, saying: “I don’t want teachers to the — teaching to the test. I don’t want them uninspired and I don’t want our students uninspired.” But what alternative does Obama offer to measure success? He says: “[L]et’s help our teachers and our principals develop a curriculum and assessments that teach our kids to become not just good test-takers. We need assessments that can improve achievement by including the kinds of research and scientific investigation and problem-solving that our children will need to compete in a 21st century knowledge economy.” Got that? Obama wants accountability, but not based off standardized tests. Instead he wants accountability based off some unidentified mechanism that has not yet even been invented.

Obama was 100% right about one thing: “In the end, responsibility for our children’s success doesn’t start in Washington, it starts in our homes. It starts in our families.” That is where accountability in education has to come from: parents. Conservatives have long understood that the key to reforming education is expanding parental power in education.

Research shows that when families are allowed to choose their children’s schools, academic achievement rises. Researcher Patrick Wolf writes: “The high quality studies on school voucher programs generally reach positive conclusions about vouchers…. Of the ten separate analyzes of data from the ‘gold standard’ experimental studies of voucher programs, nine conclude that some or all of the participants benefited academically from using a voucher to attend private school.”

To help equip parents everywhere with the tools to better take advantage of the educational options currently available, The Heritage Foundation released a “Parent’s Guide to Education Reform” this week. In most American communities, students are assigned to schools based on where they live. Because lower-income families can’t afford that choice, they have little power to decide where their children will go to school. As a result, there are essentially two education systems — one for families who can afford to live near good public schools or pay for private school (after paying taxes to support public schools) and the other for families who can’t afford to choose where they live. In recent decades, a growing number of states and communities have given families greater freedom to choose their children’s schools.

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