Let’s talk education reform

Jul 14, 2011 by

By Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Michael J. Petrilli

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 ask.)


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 circumstances.

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 with.

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 Washington.

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.

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