In 2015, K-12 and higher education officially switched places in the hierarchy of national issues. On the K-12 side, federal policymakers have quietly reined in the expansive federal role that took root under No Child Left Behind, and school reform has been largely absent from presidential debates. Meanwhile, college affordability has been a near-constant topic on the campaign trail, with candidates proposing far-reaching changes to the federal role in higher education. In Congress, calls for free college, accreditation reform, and risk-sharing are now commonplace. The federal role in K-12 is now clearly in retreat, but the push for higher education reform is gaining momentum.
It has not always been this way. Over the past 15 years, in fact, K-12 education reform was most often in the spotlight. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, leading Democrats and Republicans placed K-12 education at the center of their domestic agendas. President Clinton bemoaned low test scores and called on states to adopt rigorous standards and accountability systems. Later, candidate George W. Bush promised to end the “soft bigotry of low expectations” by bringing Texas-style accountability to federal policy. One month before the 2000 election, 17 percent of voters cited “education” as the “most important problem” facing the country (second only to economic concerns, cited by 21 percent).
After Bush took office, he worked with allies in congress to cobble together a bipartisan coalition around a federal system of test-based accountability. The coalition’s signature law—the No Child Left Behind Act—required states to regularly test students in reading, math, and science, disaggregate the results by demographic subgroups, and intervene in schools that repeatedly failed to make “adequate yearly progress.”
Though support for NCLB began to fray almost as soon as the law touched American schools, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan essentially doubled down on its main tenets. They used competitive grants and waivers to promote it, but the goals were similar: states had to adopt higher standards, intervene in the worst performing schools, evaluate teachers using test scores, and support charter schooling. Obama’s Race to the Top—a distillation of these priorities—garnered glowing accolades from elites on left and right, seemingly signaling the emergence of a lasting consensus around this conception of the federal role.
Fast-forward 7 years and the consensus has all but evaporated, as has candidates’ interest in campaigning on K-12 education reform. Earlier this month, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which maintains some testing and transparency rules but otherwise dismantles NCLB’s school improvement requirements. Secretary Duncan tried to put a happy spin on the law, but carping from former Bush and Obama administration personnel (as well as from professional education reformers here in Washington) shows how significant a defeat ESSA was for what remained of the NCLB coalition. Now that the federal role has been rolled back, it’s hard to see how it will expand again in the near future.
Few have run faster from this crumbling consensus than the 2016 presidential candidates. Republicans have all derided federal overreach and promised a return to local control. The three Democrats haven’t said much at all. Across three of their debates, the candidates have uttered less than 500 words on K-12 education reform, and even then it has usually been in passing—ie: “we should spend less on jails and more on education.” Hillary Clinton made headlines for a few skeptical remarks about charter schools and an off the cuff remark about closing schools that weren’t “above average.” But otherwise it’s been mostly crickets.
Contrast that with the higher education side. All three Democratic candidates have released higher education plans that call for a massive expansion of federal spending and power to create tuition free or debt-free public colleges. Higher education reform has come up repeatedly in Democratic debates. Transcripts show that they have spent more than 3,000 words discussing college affordability—six times as much as K-12.
The Republican debates have spent far less time on education (and all domestic policy issues, for that matter). But Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. John Kasich have discussed college costs and innovation on the debate stage, and journalists on the stump report that, unlike 2012, college affordability “[comes] up again and again at GOP events.” In Congress, conservative Republicans like Sens. Mike Lee and Rubio, Reps. Duncan Hunter and Ron DeSantis, and Speaker Paul Ryan have all introduced or co-sponsored higher education legislation.
The shift in emphasis from K-12 to higher ed reflects growing voter anxiety about the cost of college. In 2013, when National Journal asked voters which policies would do the most to improve the middle class, improving access to and lowering the cost of higher education was the top choice, chosen by 38 percent of respondents. In that same survey, 49 percent of voters said that while higher education was key to a middle class life, it was only affordable for the rich. Gallup polls indicate that parents are now more concerned about paying for college than saving for retirement.
In other words, 2016 may be to federal higher education policy what 2000 was to federal K-12 policy: the start of a sustained period of federal reform. The question, of course, is what that reform effort should look like. Democrats’ free or debt-free college plans call for a familiar, NCLB-like formula: the feds provide new money to states and colleges in exchange for new federal rules about which reforms they must implement, how they spend the money, even which type of faculty they hire in Sanders’ case.
Here, candidates would be wise to learn from the mistakes of No Child Left Behind. While proponents of the law have chalked its demise up to intransigent congressional Republicans and powerful teachers unions, the plain fact is that NCLB laid bare the limitations of federal power in education. Specifically, it showed that while the feds can use carrots and sticks to require that states set standards, test annually, and disclose the results, they are hard-pressed to fix schools from Washington. Whether it was the mandated remedies of NCLB or the lofty promises states made to win Race to the Top, federal efforts to improve struggling schools have encouraged a lot of plans, pledges, and compliance, but not a whole lot of meaningful improvement. You can require state and local actors to do something, but you cannot require that they do it well.
The key question for higher education reformers, then, is the same one that Rick Hess and I have asked in K-12: what is the federal government well-equipped to do in higher ed, and what tasks are better left to others? Providing need-based vouchers to poor students, setting basic standards for participation in federal student aid programs, collecting and publishing data that empowers consumers to vote with their feet, and “trust-busting” cartels like accreditation that limit competition seem well within the feds’ reach. Telling state and institutional leaders to adopt and faithfully implement chosen reforms in return for federal money? Cutting the checks will be the easy part. Trying to improve public colleges seems like a recipe for more disappointment.
Reformers should therefore avoid what Hess calls the “starry eyed progressive credo:” “if something is important, Washington should do it.” Instead, they should work to channel public anxiety and policymaker attention toward items on the “can-do” list. To be fair, members of both parties have promoted policy ideas drawn from that side of the ledger; President Obama has pushed for greater transparency around costs and outcomes, while Rubio, Lee, and others have touted the need to break down barriers to entry and encourage innovation. This is a good thing.
But, as we saw over the past 15 years, the temptation to supersize the federal role can be great for both sides of the aisle, especially when the public is calling on leaders to “do something.” Hewing to a realistic understanding of the federal government’s limitations will help higher education reformers avoid this pitfall, and families and taxpayers will be the better for it.
Andrew P. Kelly is a resident scholar in education policy studies and the director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he works on higher education policy, innovation in education, financial aid reform, and the politics of education policy.