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?
Folks, you know that our education system is tattered. Some of it is 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, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and other Democrats will go only so far in crossing their pals and donors in the teachers’ 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 25 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.
Is it any wonder we have a whopping deficit, while our schools haven’t improved? Is it any surprise that the National Education Association was so fast out of the gate with an endorsement for President Obama’s reelection?
What did we get for all that money? Nothing. Nada. Zip. 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. We spent $100 billion and, poof, almost all the money just evaporated.
Consider this: For $100 billion, 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.
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.
Can you tell me, for example, how much your local public school spends each year? Five thousand dollars per student? Ten thousand? Twenty thousand? I’ll win this bet 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—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.