The Magazine

Let’s Talk Education Reform

A GOP candidate’s speech.

Jul 18, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 41 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR. & MICHAEL J. PETRILLI
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Now, I believe firmly that the federal government has been trying to do too much in education​—​trying to tell schools whom they should hire, to shape the curriculum, to tie teachers in knots. None of this has worked except in producing red tape and frustration. Under my administration, we will turn all of this back to the states, where authority for education resides and where it belongs. And where Republican governors like Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, John Kasich, and Scott Walker are demonstrating real reform.

But surely our national government can ensure that we at least know what we’re spending our money on and what we’re getting for those dollars. 

The cornerstone of my administration​—​in education as in other areas​—​will be transparency. 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’ school spends per child and 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. 

We all know that we’re doing a ton of testing. Some of it is a necessary pain to gather vital information about how our children and their schools are performing. Teachers need that information about their pupils, principals about their teachers, superintendents about their schools. But 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. 

Ten years ago, policymakers in Washington tried to address this issue through the No Child Left Behind Act. And it did some good things. But it made a mistake when it tried to force a one-size-fits-all accountability system on every state in the land. 

The proper federal role, instead, is to ask states to make their school results transparent. That starts with rigorous academic standards and tests you can trust​—​not watered down exams that almost everybody passes. And, to their credit, the states are 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 release test scores (and other revealing information such as graduation rates) every which way, and they should rate their schools on an easy to understand scale, ideally from A to F, as Florida started doing under Governor Jeb Bush. 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. Because nobody can do that from Washington. What we can do is empower parents, states, and educators with better information and more choices. And that will be a huge step forward.

Chester E. Finn Jr. and Michael J. Petrilli are president and executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

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