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November 02, 2009
As Jay Mathews perceptively observed over the weekend, and as others of us have been pointing out for a while, the Obama-Duncan team didn't leave a heckuva lot of education-reform terrain for Mitt Romney to occupy except for variations on the theme of vouchers. And occupy it he has done. But "voucherizing Title I" is not a new idea. I recall working with Bill Bennett on it—and Reagan then proposed it—a quarter century ago. Getting such a major change enacted would, I think, hinge not only on Governor Romney reaching the Oval Office but also on a GOP sweep in both houses of Congress. But getting it fully considered is well worth doing.
As America nears the half-century mark with Title I, we can fairly conclude that pumping all this money into districts to boost the budgets of schools serving disadvantaged kids hasn't done those kids much good, though it has surely been welcomed by revenue-hungry districts (and states). Evaluation after evaluation of Title I has shown it to have little or no positive impact, and everybody knows that the NCLB version of Title I hasn't done much good either. It has, however, yielded an enormous number of schools that we now know, without doubt, are doing a miserable job, particularly with disadvantaged kids, but we're having a dreadful time "turning around" those schools. One may fairly conclude that Title I in its present form isn't working and probably cannot.
So why not try strapping the money to the backs of needy kids and letting them take it to the schools of their choice? This would help them escape from dreadful schools. It would make them more "affordable" for the schools they move into. It would remove one of the main barriers (the non-portability of federal dollars) that discourages states and districts from moving toward "weighted student funding" with their own money. And it would certainly go a long way to change the balance of power in American education from producers to consumers.
Of course it is fraught with vast technical and implementation challenges. Big changes always are. And it's probably unwise to force it on states that really don't want to do it. But why not at least let those that want to try it? That's how welfare reform came about. Why not education reform?