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  • Reclaiming Choice, Federalism, and Results in Education


    Education policy has often stumped or scared conservatives. It shouldn’t—we’ve long sided with children and parents against special interests—and especially not now. Federal education policy has all the defects that fueled activists’ ire this election season: skyrocketing spending, bureaucratic meddling and overreach into states’ constitutional authority. And it still leaves American children behind their potential.

    Washington first ventured into local school policy with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). The 31-page, $1 billion Great Society project redistributed wealth to low-income districts, aiming to close the achievement gap between needy students and their peers.

    Forty-five years later, the gap remains, educational performance has generally stagnated, and graduation rates haven’t improved.

    What has changed is the federal role. ESEA has grown into a 600-page bureaucratic labyrinth known as the No Child Left Behind Act, with a mandate for everyone to hate. The annual price tag to taxpayers: $25 billion.

    Conservatives can set a bold new course on education, beginning with these three priorities for federal reform:

    • Stop the Spending Spree: Federal K-12 education spending has increased 116% since 1980. In 2009, the U.S. Education Department saw a one-time windfall from the Obama “stimulus” package that instantly (and, thankfully, temporarily) doubled its budget. The administration has since called for a nearly 10 percent increase in FY 2011. It’s time to return to the more sober spending levels of FY 2008, while asking tough questions about federal programs’ cost-effectiveness overall.
    • Restore Federalism: Federal intervention has failed to improve American education, and Washington should get out of the way and send dollars and decision-making back to those closest to the child. That’s the argument conservatives will make in the looming debate over reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. Their alternative is the A-PLUS Act, sponsored by Sens. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and John Cornyn (R-TX). The plan would allow state leaders to consolidate funding from dozens of federal K-12 education programs and direct it to the most pressing education needs in their states without all the federal red tape.
    • Promote Parental Choice in Education: Every child should be free to attend a safe and effective school. Parents should have the power to choose such a school, with money that follows the child. In Washington, D.C., vouchers currently permit 1,200 students to escape the failing and often violent public schools. But congressional opponents, led by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), have tried to kill school choice. The Obama administration even revoked the scholarships of 216 students promised a spot in the program last year. Speaker-elect John Boehner (R-OH), a strong voucher proponent, met with scholarship families last Monday on his first day back in the office after elections, signaling his priority of restoring and expanding parental choice in our nation’s capital.

    Education reform should begin but not end in Washington. For all its spending, the federal government remains only a 10 percent stakeholder in local education. The most potent reforms come from state capitals and, after historic Republican gains in legislatures and key gubernatorial wins, the broken status quo could face significant overhaul. For enduring impact, state reforms should:

    • Tackle the Pension Problem: In many states, teacher pension plans have helped make state budgets unsustainable. The Manhattan Institute estimates that teacher pension plans’ unfunded liabilities collectively amount to roughly $933 billion. Less than a quarter of that is due to the stock market’s recent poor performance; most of the deficit comes from poorly planned defined benefit plans and chronic under funding. State leaders cannot afford to postpone dealing with the pension crisis. Delay will only make a bad situation even worse. Shifting to defined contribution plans is one place to start.
    • Promote State Systemic Education Reform: State leaders should focus on results rather than inputs, and empower parents and teachers based on those results. For decades, teachers unions and their allies have clamored for more funding with little to show for it. Now states like Florida have set the pace by shifting to results-oriented policy that rewards achievement and gives students better opportunities when schools fail. Gov. Jeb Bush’s systemic reform has made impressive strides where federal policy has perennially failed. Black students in Florida have made academic gains at twice the rate of their peers nationwide in the past decade. Hispanic students match or outperform statewide averages in 31 states. Other states should follow suit by adopting the key ingredients of systemic reform: authentic accountability to parents and taxpayers, parental choice in education, and performance-based rewards for teachers.

    Whether in Washington, D.C. or state capitals, midterm momentum offers conservatives a wide field for education reform where liberals have failed. Seizing the initiative could be one of the most important steps toward the goal of ensuring freedom and prosperity that animated this election cycle.

    Cross-posted at ConservativeHome’s Platform.

    Posted in Education [slideshow_deploy]

    8 Responses to Reclaiming Choice, Federalism, and Results in Education

    1. Roger Baxter. Batavi says:

      I have a hard time reading this. Everything that has been attempted since Johnson has resulted in no advancement whatsoever, yet you just want to nibble at the incremental edges?

      Wrong. Eliminate the Department of Education in its entirety, That is the only solution. Let the states deal with the problem, with all of the money that would automatically be returned to them – including the costs of the bloated bureaucracy that exists in Washinton.

    2. Steve Wahls Loomis N says:

      Too many of our poorer students (who have a higher failure rate) spend 6hrs at school where they are pushed to excel only to return home to a single unemployed unmotivated guardian who is happy doing little to improve their situation for the remaining 18hrs of the day. How can putting more money into this situation improve it? It seems to me the more intelligent option would be to remove money and cause people to become more motivated both the guardian and the student.

    3. Becky in Washington says:

      excellent points all…and choice for teachers would be a good addition. The Association of American Educators offers teachers a professional organization that allows them to drop their forced or coerced union membership in the NEA and its state chapters. http://www.aaeteachers.org

    4. Rock Cramer, Parker, says:

      This is also about higher education. A sanitized version of a letter to my alma mater, a liberal arts college, written several months ago:

      My concerns are about what I would call “systemic issues” in higher education. Has the Governing Board recently debated its policies that affect the following?

      1. What change has occurred in the ratio of total administrative equivalent hours to total student (class time) hours for the past 30 to 40 years?

      2. Are all pensions defined contribution (401K type)? If not, there are other ways of assuring that the best can be retained rather than imposing the likelihood of contingent liability burden on future boards. The Board should pay for what it wants, not what it thinks everyone else is doing.

      3. When was the last time all tenure issues were seriously debated?

      4. How has total faculty cost per teaching hour changed in the last 30 to 40 years? How does this relate to CPI? It’s possible that “research time” and sabbaticals have become anachronistic perks in this age of the internet. How focused are the Board and Administration on paying enough per teaching hour to retain the best?

      5. For a while, at least, nifty new research should take a back seat to dissemination and clarification of what is already known and provable. When kids are now researching a paper, where do they go? Search engines and Wikipedia. Bonus faculty to work on projects focused on improving the results of internet research: that it’s accurate and factually correct and that associated opinion commentary either flows from the facts or is otherwise challenged by full context and facts. We need to become much more proactive regarding internet research integrity and media generally.

      Higher education needs to get leaner.

      The mission should be to graduate kids that understand why free market capitalism, and therefore opportunity and prosperity, can only be sustained within the social contract intended by our Founders…how we achieved “American Exceptionalism.” They need to understand why the “moral equivalency” attitude that is so pervasive in higher education is as silly as the tooth fairy. They need basic business skills in accounting and economics. In short, they need to be educated to prosper and lead with principled core beliefs, not merely survive…because they won’t have the opportunities of my generation that has mortgaged their future.

      Call me an “ideologue” if you like, but I’ll stand with Madison and Lincoln believing in the “absolute truth” that natural rights “state the perfect equality of mankind.” Most of the justices on today’s Supreme Court act like they never learned what the Constitutional Law crafted by our Founders was designed to protect. This reflects a profound failure of education over many generations. We need to educate kids in what it means to be a citizen of this great country…and the responsibilities that come with citizenship..

    5. Cindy , Chicago says:

      I believe in Vouchers. That way the parent needs to actually put in effort and investment in their kids education. People who live in certain school districts pay a premium to live there because of the schools. They pay much higher home prices and property taxes . I believe in free choice as long as someone wants to pay their fair share.

      People need to have some skin in the game and that means, pay their share to go to school in a higher real estate property tax area. Detroit became a free choice area and the results are not great. You have a lot of residents complaining–even in very middle class and lower middle class areas that resent the free choice because the schools are getting torn up and abused and then the taxpayers in that district have to pay to fix it all. That's not right. Again, doesn't sound like a win for the residents who have to pay the property taxes that will go towards fixing all the problems .

    6. Bob, Richland says:

      I believe that vouchers are the best way to return school accountability to parents – particularly those who are interested in their children. It could take a long time to get this through state legislatures particularly in blue states. Has anyone considered using the referendum/initative process to cirmcumvent the state legislature?

    7. Steven A. Sylwester, says:

      On 11/18/10, the article "Redefining the federal role in public education" by Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) was posted online at:

      My "comment #6" posted at thehill.com is the following:

      Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) better mean "each and every child" when he writes: "The international achievement gap will also close as we employ all the tools in our toolbox to ensure that each and every child is successful."

      Civil Rights are not just for poor people, or for people who are functionally illiterate or who are flunking out of school. Civil Rights are also for the most brilliant young people in America — The Top One Percent — the geniuses.

      I have proposed a national public high school for the most brilliant young people in America who have career interests in mathematics and the sciences. I call my proposed school "NASA Academy of the Physical Sciences" (NAPS), and my proposal can be read at:

      NAPS was designed with the national security interests of the U.S. in mind. Please read:

      I participate in an online forum regarding NAPS at:

      The guiding light for NAPS should be found in a U.S. commitment to meaningful National Education Standards. In my thinking, the basic National Education Standards should be: Every Child 21st-Century-Literate at No Less Than Grade Level While Being Actively Challenged and Fully Facilitated to Achieve Personal Potentials in All Core Academics. At the top end where NAPS exists, the National Education Standards should be simply this: Students Must Be Advanced to the Academic Level at Which They Can Succeed While Being Challenged.

      NAPS is doable. Please read my proposal.

      Steven A. Sylwester

      * * *

      I have been championing my NAPS proposal since soon after President Obama's inauguration. For examples of my efforts, please read the following:

      Comment #1 and #3 at: http://thehill.com/blogs/hillicon-valley/technolo
      Comment #1 at: http://blogs.physicstoday.org/newspicks/2010/07/a
      Response #1 at: http://paulingblog.wordpress.com/2008/06/26/pauli
      Comment #6 at: http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/technologyhttp://community.nytimes.com/comments/opinionatorhttp://community.nytimes.com/comments/www.nytimeshttp://giftedissues.davidsongifted.org/BB/ubbthrehttp://community.nytimes.com/comments/opinionatorhttp://community.nytimes.com/comments/roomfordeba

      As I write this, the online forum "I participate in" mentioned above has 18,425 views. The forum was locked down on 11/29/10 (meaning: no more new replies can be posted), but 200+ new views are regularly being added to the forum's views total on a daily basis according to the available analytics:

      Though everyone should support my NAPS proposal out of an urgent sense of national self-interest, a surprising number of liberals want any available money and/or educational resources to be directed entirely at the worst students, and to therefore leave the best students to make do with the standard high school curriculum, even if that curriculum is not at all challenging for the very best students — The Top One Percent. The utter short-sighted foolishness of that sort of liberal thinking explains very plainly why the U.S. is declining in academic performance when compared to other nations around the world.

      School is for educating all students according to their ability; it is not for socializing and normalizing and moderating those students who do not fit in because of their academic brilliance. Despite the opinion of some that geniuses need to learn how to live among ordinary people, there is not one good thing accomplished in forcing a genius child to endure years of despair during high school, especially if a doable alternative like NAPS can be easily put into operation nationwide through a federal dictate and under federal control.

      My hope is that the readers of "The Foundry" and that The Heritage Foundation in general will find my NAPS proposal to be worthy of active support. Of course, those conservatives who want the federal government to remove itself from K-12 education will be initially challenged by my NAPS proposal, but I beg a fair reading and an honest pondered consideration.

      Simply, NAPS is deeply rooted in conservative thinking through and through. Furthermore, NAPS will give America its best chance to maintain world leadership throughout the 21st Century. For, though a nation will be judged by how it helps its most needy citizens, a nation will survive and thrive by how it nurtures and makes productive the talents and the abilities of its most brilliant citizens.

      If we want God to bless America, we should start by counting our blessings: by first identifying the blessings we have been given in the potential of our nation's most brilliant children, and by then doing all that is possible to realize the full potential of those blessings. Jesus said, "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." (Luke 12:48 NIV)

      NAPS is doable. Please read my proposal. Thank you.

      Steven A. Sylwester

    8. Pingback: FRC Blog » The Social Conservative Review: The Insider’s Guide to Pro-Family News–December 9, 2010

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