By CHESTER E. FINN JR. and MICHAEL J. PETRILLI
Add education to a long list of vexing policy issues for today’s fractured Republican Party. It’s not that complicated at the state level, where dozens of GOP governors have, over the years, proven their mettle by promoting higher standards, greater accountability and wider parental choice. But in Washington, Republican presidents and members of Congress have struggled mightily to find an approach that both embraces reform and respects a limited federal role.
That’s the right needle for Republicans to thread. Though Democrats never admit it, Washington is clumsy at best, and wildly incompetent at worst, when it comes to improving schools from the shores of the Potomac. That should surprise no one — at least three levels of bureaucracy separate the secretary of education from actual classrooms. Federal carrots and sticks, no matter how carefully engineered, can’t overcome this fundamental challenge.
Yet abdication isn’t a realistic option for Republicans, either. Partly that’s because of politics. Voters — parents especially — want to hear leaders talk about how they will fix the schools. Most aren’t interested in lectures on the finer points of federalism. Education reform, moreover, is one of the best answers Republicans can offer to tough questions of social mobility at home and competitiveness abroad.
Then there’s the practical issue: Washington spends some $40 billion a year on K-12 education. Nobody seriously expects those funds to disappear. Do Republicans really want to pump all that money into union-run and bureaucratically paralyzed public institutions and not demand any accountability or reform in return?
This conundrum explains the herky-jerky nature of GOP education policy in recent decades — lurching from Newt Gingrich’s calls to abolish the Department of Education to George W. Bush’s monument to Big Government conservatism, No Child Left Behind.
Bush is now back in Texas, but his education law is still with us — at least six years overdue for a rewrite by our famously gridlocked Congress. Into those waters wade Sen. Lamar Alexander and Rep. John Kline, Republicans both, who last month presented similar plans to overhaul NCLB. Alexander’s measure failed on a party-line committee vote in the Democratic-controlled Senate; Kline’s (GOP-controlled) committee sent his bill to the floor of the House after a mirror-image partisan vote.
Both bills would right-size the federal role by terminating programs, clear-cutting thickets of federal rules and regulations, and putting a lid on spending growth. Most significantly, they would get Washington out of micromanaging states’ testing and accountability systems as well as their teacher-licensure practices.
But they wouldn’t abdicate all responsibility. The fundamental bargain they propose is this: In return for billions in federal aid, states and schools must make results transparent. Students will continue to be tested annually, aggregate scores released publicly — and schools graded accordingly.
Sunlight alone cannot cure our education ills, but it illumines the path for elected officials, education leaders and sundry reformers at the state and local levels. They can use the information to push for real change — but nobody in Washington will force it on them. (We’d prefer that Alexander and Kline go a bit further by making school spending more transparent, too.)
Contrast this measured approach with that of Democrats such as Senate education committee Chairman Tom Harkin, who would double down on federal micromanagement and prescription. Harkin’s bill, now headed to the Senate floor, seeks to introduce myriad new rules that would further embed Washington bureaucrats in the operation of schools, on issues such as funding, teacher placement, educator evaluations, pupil discipline, preschool standards and more. Or listen to Democratic Rep. Jared Polis, speaking about Kline’s bill, who told The Huffington Post, “It’s a nonstarter for anyone who’s serious about education reform.”
Balderdash. If we’re serious about reform, we must acknowledge that Washington is likelier to make things worse than to make them better. Take our current experiment with teacher evaluations. In return for flexibility from some of NCLB’s most onerous (and least realistic) prescriptions, Education Secretary Arne Duncan demanded last year that states devise formulaic systems to measure classroom performance. The impulse is plausible (if unconstitutional — Duncan has no legal authority to make such demands) , but after going through the bureaucratic grinder, the resulting systems don’t pass the laugh test. Spanish teachers are being evaluated based on their students’ (English) reading scores and states are creating elaborate assessments for gym class.
Alexander and Kline are right on the merits — and Harkin and Polis are wrong. We need to be more realistic, even humble, about what Washington can actually accomplish in this realm. That’s no call for inaction, only for aligning roles and responsibilities. To make this approach palatable to the public, however, we must also look back to the states, where GOP governors (like Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Rick Snyder, Scott Walker and Jan Brewer) need to keep showing leadership on schools. A limited federal role in education, combined with aggressive action at the state level: That’s a Republican education strategy for the ages.
Chester E. Finn Jr. and Michael J. Petrilli are president and executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank in Washington. Both are also affiliated with Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.