The Republican presidential candidates have spent the past year saying little about education. When they have addressed the issue, it has often been in terse calls to “turn off the lights” at the U.S. Department of Education. After a decade of runaway spending and regulations on education by both the Bush and Obama administrations—with little to show for it—it’s easy to see why conservatives have little patience for talk of anything that seems to invite federal activity. But the reality is federal engagement isn’t going away.

Last week, presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney unveiled an agenda for education reform centered on promising themes such as school choice, innovation, transparency, and return on investment. Most important, Romney’s plans turn the page on the decade-long romance with expansive No Child Left Behind-style federal intervention.

But the work should not stop there. A coherent agenda should not only move us away from policies that have proven unsuccessful; it should also use the lessons from those missteps to draft a new approach. Instead of settling for vague paeans to choice and innovation, Romney should chart a course for federal involvement that capitalizes on areas where government is well-positioned to play a productive role and avoids the pitfalls unearthed by previous administrations.

The last decade has identified those pitfalls quite clearly. The Obama administration has spent

$3.5 billion mandating school turnaround policies that dictate how states should fix failing schools. The $4.5 billion Race to the Top program told states how to gather data about schools and students, how to evaluate teachers, and how to reform schools. President Bush’s NCLB accountability system—which relied exclusively on tracking passing rates in reading and math for student subgroups defined by race, gender, special needs, and economic status—pushed principals and superintendents to prioritize boosting minimum performance on assessments at the expense of nearly everything else. For those schools that fail to get over the bar, NCLB prescribes a rigid cascade of remedies, all of which require faithful implementation that is simply impossible to guarantee from Washington.

These approaches to federal education policy ignore what we have learned from years of experience: The structures of American government make it difficult for the feds to make such progress at the school level. Improving education depends so much on the smart execution of ideas that it is nearly impossible to mandate our way to better schooling. Thus, initiatives like Race to the Top and NCLB, which may be promising if pursued at the local level, will likely disappoint if enacted at the federal level.

In light of these lessons, how could Romney leverage federal power to improve schooling?

First, Uncle Sam can use the bully pulpit to highlight educational challenges and make them national priorities. Presidential pronouncements and commissions have elevated issues of equity and student achievement, shifting political lines and setting school systems onto a new course. This happened with the Reagan commission’s A Nation at Risk, with the NCLB-era emphasis on testing, and with the Obama administration’s advocacy for school turnarounds and better teacher training. Federal policies and rhetoric can provide cover to state and local leaders, making it easier for them to pursue goals that would otherwise foster fierce backlash.

Second, the federal government can provide the public with the basic information and research necessary for accountability and informed consumer choice—a role that Romney highlighted in his speech. Even the most ardent conservatives would agree that well-functioning markets and elections require accurate, unbiased data on the quality of public service providers. Because states have little incentive to release potentially embarrassing honest numbers, the feds are better positioned to serve as a reliable source of information on the performance and cost of schools across states and localities.

Third, research that uncovers promising new practices is a public good that localities and private firms have little interest in producing. Without federal support, the market will fail to generate new knowledge about innovations. While the history of federal research has often disappointed, with education faculty dressing personal agendas in scholarly garb, the answer is to ardently champion rigorous inquiry at the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the Department of Education.

The bottom line: There is a principled alternative to the mantra that we need to “get the feds out of education” and, conversely, the Bush-Obama notion that the feds can fix our schools. Republicans have been right to criticize federal efforts to influence what goes on in classrooms, but it would be a mistake to ignore the fruitful, supporting role that the federal government can play in education reform.

Ultimately, there’s a viable, coherent conservative stance that Governor Romney should take, one that fits comfortably with both our educational heritage and public sentiment: Washington can’t and shouldn’t try to fix schools, but it can help create the conditions that enable educators and local reformers to do so.

Frederick M. Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where Andrew P. Kelly is a research fellow in education. They are the coeditors of Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit: Lessons from a Half-Century of Federal Efforts to Improve America’s Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2012).

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