The results of Tuesday’s election sent a clear message about the direction voters want the federal government to take. The recently released 2010 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll What Americans Said about the Public Schools is illustrative.
Whether it’s paying the bills, setting standards, deciding what should be taught, or holding schools accountable, Americans believe state government is the responsible agency for public education in the United States.
With a new batch of conservative leaders heading to Washington, the time is ripe to promote federalism in education, reduce spending, and empower parents with school choice. Incoming Members of Congress, including Senators Marco Rubio (R–FL) and Rand Paul (R–KY)—both of whom have vowed to limit the federal government’s role in education—will likely look toward more conservative solutions to reforming education.
Americans made it clear that they want their problems solved locally, not by a distant and expensive Washington bureaucracy. Education is no exception. If Congress decides to undertake a reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act next year, that will provide an opportunity to significantly reduce bureaucracy and put more power in the hands of local leaders and parents.
Jennifer Marshall, Director of Domestic Policy Studies at Heritage, pointed out on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal last week that Washington’s overreach into local education over the years has created “an accountability chain that is misdirected. So it politicizes the whole education project [and] directs everyone’s attention up to Washington, where it shouldn’t be. Because when that attention is taken off the local level, the student and the primary customers—the parents and taxpayers—it breaks down the whole incentive and accountability chain that once made American education great.” The bottom line is that solutions for local education will not be found in Washington.
As a new Congress comes to Washington:
First, expect efforts to rein in education spending. U.S. Department of Education funding has increased nearly fivefold in the 30 years since its creation, real per-pupil federal education expenditures have more than tripled since the 1960s, and the Obama Administration just inflated the DOE’s coffers by $100 billion through the “stimulus”—on top of the agency’s regular appropriations. As if that weren’t enough, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the entire House of Representatives back to Washington during their August recess to pass a $10 billion public education bailout.
But more spending is not the answer. Massive increases over decades have failed to improve student outcomes. With conservative leaders pledging to cut spending in Washington, watch for new consideration of proposals to grant states flexibility and the freedom to target resources to their most vital education needs.
Second, look for legislative efforts to restore federalism in education. The conservative alternative to No Child Left Behind—called the A-PLUS Act—will likely find more champions in the new Congress. The approach would allow a state to consolidate funding from among dozens of individual federal programs and spend it on state priorities in education. Allowing states freedom from federal red tape would likely produce more examples of policies that are successful in increasing academic achievement, like those seen in innovative states such as Florida.
Florida is narrowing the achievement gap in a way federal education policy has failed to do for decades. Public school choice, private school choice, charter schools, virtual education, performance pay, alternative teacher certification, grading schools on an A–F scale, and putting an end to social promotion are all part of the Florida reform package that has contributed to important gains for students in the Sunshine State.
Third, watch for renewed interest in the school choice solution. Congress can begin by restoring and expanding school choice options for children in the nation’s capital. The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers of up to $7,500 for low-income children in the nation’s capital to attend a private school of their choice, has been a lifeline for local families. It has drawn strong support from current and new Members of Congress.
The election results could mean big opportunities for genuine education reform that cuts bureaucracy, better targets and reduces spending, and empowers parents.