An education agenda for the states: Fostering opportunity from pre-K through college

UTAustin_logoby  Katharine B. Stevens, Michael Q. McShane, Andrew P. Kelly, Frederick M. Hess

Governors and legislators are right to look for strategies that can provide the highest-quality education to the largest number of K-12 students. Some strategies, though, are more promising than others. Learn more by reading .

students_teacher_reading_private_school_shutterstock_500x293Key Points

  • In US education, with all its rich human dynamics, what matters is not whether a reform is attempted, but rather how it is executed. The states, given their sufficient control over schools and colleges and their proximity to their communities, are in a far better position than the federal government to effectively execute policies.
  • Although many education reform efforts have fallen flat over the years, there are promising initiatives on the horizon that state leaders would be well-advised to pursue. Governors and legislators are right to look for strategies that can provide the highest-quality education to the largest number of students.
  • In pre-K, state leaders have a rare opportunity to build a system from the ground up; in K–12, they have the chance to remove barriers to give more freedom to teachers and parents; and in higher education, they have the opportunity to look beyond the existing system to create new, more affordable postsecondary options that allow more flexibility for students and innovation for course providers.

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Above all else, the American creed is one of liberty and opportunity. In the 21st century, whether the topic is economic opportunity, responsible citizenship, or political engagement, the role of education is more significant than ever before. That means political and civic leaders committed to a vision of opportunity—and especially to equal opportunity—have to be serious about improving education.

To help state lawmakers and executives in their efforts to pursue the kinds of education reform needed to truly deliver on the promise of an opportunity society, my talented colleagues in AEI Education have penned some crucial dos and don’ts for K–12, higher education, and early-childhood education reform.

American education is sorely in need of fresh thinking, but even the best ideas can flounder when executed clumsily—especially when self-impressed federal bureaucrats try to foist them on the states.

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In education, with all its rich human dynamics, what often matters is less whether a reform is attempted than how it is executed. Given our system of government, with its checks on federal authority, it is exceedingly difficult for even the best-intentioned federal officials to do very much that will ultimately deliver the hoped-for results for students and families. The US Constitution leaves education to the states for a reason: states are close enough to their communities and have sufficient control over schools and colleges that they can promote reforms in a manner that is actually likely to deliver.

This vision of American government may frustrate those education reformers who are so convinced of the moral urgency of the problem and so confident in their ideas that they feel compelled to put them into action everywhere at once. Yet while the motivations of these reformers may be admirable, a wealth of experience suggests that their approach is immensely problematic at best—and self-defeating at worst.

That is why I think it a wiser and more constructive course for education reform to be led by states (just as I prefer to see innovative models emerge from schools, districts, private providers, and colleges rather than government entities). State leaders passionate about opportunity and about ensuring that every American has a fair shot need to have a robust education agenda: one that embraces a coherent vision of how to do much better when it comes to K–12, early childhood, and postsecondary education.

We hope that this brief can share some key lessons and point to some promising ideas. If this is useful, please also note the provided list of additional resources, and know that we welcome the chance to hear from you and discuss any of these issues and ideas more fully.

Read the full report.

Frederick M. Hess is the Director of Education Policy Studies American Enterprise Institute

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