Let's talk education reform

The Republican
presidential field is beginning to take shape, and candidates and
maybe-candidates are figuring out where they stand and what to say. Sooner or
later, they will need to say something about education. May we suggest a few
talking points? Even a potential speech for a GOP candidate? (It’s free for the
use of Democrats and Vegetarians, Libertarians, too. You don’t even have to


Folks, you know
that our education system is tattered. Parts of it are fine, but too much is
mediocre or worse. Once the envy of the world, American schools are losing
ground to those in Europe and Asia. Today, many countries are out-teaching,
out-learning, and out-hustling our schools?—?and doing it for a fraction of the cost.

Meanwhile, failed
education systems in our cities worsen the odds that the next generation will
climb out of poverty into decent jobs and a shot at the American dream. And as
much as many of us prefer not to notice, way too many of our suburban schools
are just getting by. They may not be dropout factories, but they’re not
preparing anywhere near enough of their pupils to revive our economy,
strengthen our culture, and lead our future. 

Turning this
situation around has been the work of education reform for the past two
decades. We’ve spent a lot of money on it. We’ve had any number of schemes and
plans and laws and pilot programs. And we’ve seen some modest success.
Graduation rates are starting to inch up again. The lowest-performing students
have made gains. Many more families are taking advantage of many more forms of
school choice. And our best public charter schools are demonstrating that
tremendous success is possible even in the most challenging of

Leaders from both
parties deserve credit for these gains, including President Bush and, yes,
President Obama. We need to appreciate his support for quality charter schools,
rigorous teacher evaluations, and merit pay.

But we’ve got a
long way to go on this front, and the past couple of years have reminded us
that breakthrough change won’t come from Washington. It will come from our
states, our communities, and our parents. We’ve also learned that, at the end
of the day, Barack Obama and other leading Democrats will go only so far in
crossing their pals and donors in the teacher unions. While they may talk the
talk, how they walk?—?and especially how they spend taxpayers’
hard earned dollars?—?reveal far more about their priorities and
their loyalties.

Consider this: The
president’s so-called stimulus bill included over $100 billion to bail out our
mediocre education system. About $4 billion of this went to promote school
reform. In other words, Obama spent twenty-five times as much to prop up the
status quo as he did to push for meaningful change?—?$96
billion just to keep our education bureaucracy immune from the painful
effects of the recession that almost everyone else in America has had to cope

What did we get
for that $96 billion? Nothing. No improved student achievement. No breakthrough
innovations. No new insights into how to close the achievement gap. No
concessions from the unions on their gold-plated health-care benefits or
retirement pensions or lifetime job protections. The money just evaporated.

Consider this:
With that money, we could have sent ten million needy kids to private schools
for two years. We could have created a thousand new charter schools. We could
have given the best 25 percent of America’s teachers a one-time bonus north of
$100,000?—?or $10,000 a year for ten years. But what did we buy instead? Nothing.
We just delayed the inevitable budget cuts for a year or two.

The past couple of years have reminded
us that breakthrough change won’t come from Washington. It will come
from our states, our communities, and our parents.


Not that this is
unusual for an education system that has perfected the magic trick of making
money disappear. We spend almost $600 billion a year on our schools?—?more
than we spend on Medicare and more than we’ve spent over a decade in
Afghanistan. Yet we know practically nothing about where all this money goes or
what it buys.

Do you know, for
instance, how much your local public school spends each year? Five thousand
dollars per student? Ten thousand? Twenty thousand? It’s a trick question
because nobody knows, not even the principal?—?that’s
how opaque our system is.

Now, I believe
firmly that the federal government has been trying to do too much in education?—?
telling schools whom they should hire while tying teachers in knots, telling
states how to fix their troubled schools, and much more. Yet all that these
things have done is produce red tape and frustration. Under my administration,
we will turn education authority back to the states, where it belongs. And
where Republican governors like Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, John Kasich, and
Scott Walker are demonstrating real reform.

Instead of
overreach from Washington, you’ll see transparency. This will be the cornerstone
of my administration?—?in education as in other areas. We will say
to states and communities: If you want education dollars from Uncle Sam, you
need to open up your books so everybody can see where the money is going.
Taxpayers deserve to know how much their kids’ schools spend per child and they
should be able to compare that with the neighboring school or a school across
the city, state, or nation. Making this information available, I believe, will
have a catalytic effect, empowering school boards, taxpayer groups, and other
activists to push for greater productivity from our sheltered and bloated
education bureaucracy.

But transparency
about money is not enough. We also need to make student achievement more
visible. Considering all the testing our kids endure and all the data we
collect, parents and citizens and taxpayers actually know astonishingly little
about what’s working and what’s not. The proper federal role in this realm
is to prod states to make their school results transparent. That starts with
rigorous academic standards and tests we can trust?—?not
watered down exams that almost everybody passes. To their credit, the states
are already working to meet this challenge with a set of rigorous standards for
reading and math that were developed by governors and state superintendents,
not by the federal government. I support those standards so long as they remain
in the hands of the states and so long as they remain voluntary. What I cannot
support?—?and what none of us will tolerate?—?is a top-down, federal effort to mandate
particular standards or create a national curriculum.

Once good
standards and decent tests are in place, states should make test scores (and
other revealing information like graduation rates) available to all, and they
should rate their schools on an easy-to-understand scale, say, from A to F, as
Florida has been doing since Jeb Bush was governor. The details of how to do
this should be left to the states, however, not micromanaged from

Finally, one of
the best ways to get more bang for the education buck is to strap it to the
backs of individual kids and let parents decide which schools deliver the best
value for money?—?and give them as wide a range of choice as
possible. In my view, the available choices should include private, charter,
and virtual schools, and just about anything else with the potential to deliver
a quality education to kids. If a state will do the right thing and trust
parents to decide what school should receive its money, the federal government
should do the same with its (relatively small) part of the money. Add it to the
backpack and let it travel with the kid.

Let me be clear:
My plan won’t fix all that ails America’s schools. Nobody can do that from
Washington. What it can do is empower parents, states, and educators
with better information and more choices. And that will be a huge step forward.

This piece originally appeared (in a slightly
different format) in the July 18, 2011 edition of the Weekly Standard magazine,
available online here, and on Fordham’s
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Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.