Hon. George Miller
Chairman-to-be, House Committee on Education & the Workforce
United States Congress

Dear Mr. Chairman:

Congratulations. I wish my party had won but they didn't deserve to. Now we see whether yours will deserve to hold on to its new mandate. That will take some doing. Democrats prevailed on Tuesday because they were the Not-GOP, Not-Bush party, not because they presented the country with a program that people were voting for
Yes, Nancy Pelosi did offer a sketchy "New Direction for America" document that hints at a few specifics. But not in K-12 education. There the absence of prior commitments gives you an advantage: You can shape the House's, and perhaps the Congress's, agenda in this area. It's territory you know well and where you're known both for keen intellect and strong convictions. You've also tended to surround yourself with capable staffers. Not a bad start.
Most observers will fixate on No Child Left Behind, of which you were a major architect. You've been outspokenly critical of its implementation and funding but haven't said much about whether, six years later, you think the basic structure is sound.

Here you'll have plenty of advice. Analyzing NCLB and suggesting ways to alter, improve, strengthen and weaken it is the principal activity of innumerable think tanks, policy wonks and education lobbyists. Before I offer a few thoughts on that topic, however, allow me to mention three other education-agenda items.

  • Head Start. Though the House passed a Head Start reauthorization bill and the Senate HELP committee reported one out, the 109th Congress failed to update this iconic old program. Any number of issues surround it but one is paramount: Will Head Start, originally designed as a "child development" program, now become the kindergarten readiness program that poor kids need most--a stepping stone to NCLB--with cognitive focus, coherent curriculum, standards to meet, and staff competent to do all this?
  • Higher Education Act. The 109thCongress also failed to reauthorize HEA, instead settling for several short-term extensions. That's embarrassing--another example of the do-nothingism that dismayed voters. I assume you and the 110th Congress will try again. Here the "New Direction for America" paper mentions making college "more affordable." But beware of an easy trap. Before assuming that additional federal student aid is the only path to affordability, check out Charles Miller's commission report on the subject of efficiency and productivity in higher education. Consider, too, the conclusion of many analysts that most young Americans who, by the end of high school, are truly prepared to succeed in college, are finding the means to matriculate. It would seem that much apparent inequality in who goes to college and stays there is attributable more to high school preparation than to resources per se.
  • Institute of Education Sciences. The government's education research-and-statistics unit was given a six-year authorization that ends in September 2008. You could just extend it for a year but you'd be well advised to take its renewal seriously. How well has IES done at delivering high-quality, reliable, and timely data? Conducting credible research on the most important issues? Rigorously and objectively evaluating various programs and interventions, federal and otherwise? Disseminating information in forms that policymakers and practitioners can apply? Keeping its political nose clean? This is worth a close look, preferably starting with the statistics operation, not because it's done anything wrong (Commissioner Mark Schneider is one of the ablest people in Washington), but because its basic apparatus for data gathering, analysis and dissemination is antiquated.       

Now to NCLB. The big lessons to be learned here are that the Department of Education ought not be expected to micromanage complex programs (e.g., Reading First) but that it's also risky to devolve key decisions to the states. Look at what's happened to your own Highly-Qualified Teachers plan and to proficiency standards. The next edition of NCLB needs to rebalance things. It should step up the federal role in setting standards and monitoring progress, but also empower educators and state/local leaders to work out the best means of getting there.

Sure, you can attach more money to NCLB and you probably will but, honestly, spending isn't the crux of this one. Three tough challenges are:

  • Immense capacity problems beset all three levels of government when it comes to reforming schools and school systems. It's naïve to expect state and local education agencies to reform themselves--or one another, or the schools they allowed to falter. What they're good at is receiving and spending money.
  • It's time to figure out the right way to do national standards and tests--no, not conducted by the Education Department--and reporting mechanisms, much as England does. Some Republicans will squawk but others will see the wisdom of this approach--so long as you free up states and communities to meet national standards as they think best, reducing the amount of bossy regulation from Washington. (Consider holding governors responsible rather than state education bureaucracies.)
  • You may not love vouchers but I hope you agree that poor kids trapped in chronically low-performing schools deserve better options. Please understand, then, that the "public school choice" feature of NCLB isn't working, mostly because districts have no incentive to make it work and those with the largest numbers of deserving kids have the least room for them in high-performing schools. Congress needs to prime the supply pump by encouraging creation of more high-quality charter schools in such communities. It should give kids from dysfunctional schools the right to attend public schools in neighboring districts. (Here you'll have to fend off suburban Republicans who don't want "those kids" in their schools.) Also consider making states or independent outfits responsible for notifying parents of their rights and options. It's folly to expect districts to do this well.

The Democrats who lost power in 1994 would have blanched at such an agenda. But the GOP didn't get it right, either. Now it's your turn. Do a better job and your turn may last a long time.

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