Given all the challenges facing education reform, we need to remember who really should make the decisions about what happens in our schools: state and local authorities and, most important, parents. This tends to get lost in a lot of education policy debates, whether on school choice, accountability, teacher pay or standards.
That’s why it is so important to finally tackle the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the critical piece of legislation that sets out the role of the federal government in school funding and policy. The act has not been improved and reauthorized since it expired in 2007. Instead, the Obama administration has issued a patchwork of waivers and side deals, given out by fiat and without consistency. No wonder parents and state and local leaders question Washington’s motives when it comes to our schools.
The federal government’s role in elementary and secondary education should be limited: It should work to create transparency so that parents can see how their local schools measure up; it should support policies that have a proven record; and it should make sure states can’t ignore students who need extra help. That’s it.
The reauthorization process can define and clarify this role. Where the federal government maintains the power of the purse — as it does with Title I programs aimed at supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds — Congress should direct it to let states use that funding in a flexible manner to meet the goal of the programs. For example, states should have the right to decide whether Title I funding should be used to create education savings accounts that parents can use to send their kids to the schools that best meet their needs.
In short, the federal role should be subservient to the role of states.
We are long overdue in setting the lines of authority so clearly. State efforts to raise standards have been muddied by the Obama administration. Federal funding has become a whipping stick to be used on local district leaders who are unwilling to go along with every program dreamed up in Washington.
Fundamentally, the needed transformation of our education system will never be achieved by Washington. The best reform ideas begin at the state and local level. That’s where reform will succeed.
In 1991, Minnesota led the way on creating charter schools. Massachusetts passed a reform bill on standards, accountability and choice in 1993 and became the nation’s top academic achiever. When I was governor, Florida began grading schools on an A-to-F scale in 1999 and offered dramatic school-choice options to parents. Now, 16 states grade their schools, 19 have choice programs and all but eight have charter school laws.
These successes all have two things in common. The initiatives placed the needs of students first, and the federal government had nothing to do with them.
That said, the federal government has a role in creating transparency to ensure that failure is unacceptable. Before the last reauthorization of ESEA in 2001, known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), most states had no accountability system. They plowed billions of taxpayer dollars into education bureaucracies, often getting nothing in return.
NCLB changed that by creating a common yardstick. Now, all states participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a series of high-quality tests known as the Nation’s Report Card. The results give us an apples-to-apples comparison among states. Annual testing and reporting also force states to confront their failures, especially the substandard education often offered to disadvantaged children.
NCLB is far from perfect. It doesn’t give states the flexibility they need, and the system can be gamed. But those flaws can be fixed in the reauthorization process.
Most critically, we can use the reauthorization process to keep states and local districts in control of making vital decisions about standards, curriculum and academic content. States should also actively protect the privacy of student data; some states, such as Oklahoma, have already found the right solutions to that problem.
Such control can work. We’ve seen more than 40 states voluntarily work together to create the Common Core standards for language arts and math. I support such rigorous, state-driven academic standards. Some states would rather set their own standards, and that’s appropriate, provided they are high standards. But no matter what, no state should be forced to adopt standards mandated by the federal government.
These kinds of solutions don’t surprise me, because states have always been more effective at addressing policy challenges in our schools. The reauthorization effort being led by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) is making important progress in Congress. The key to success is this: If we are to move forward on education reform, the states and local authorities must be allowed to lead. And for that to happen, it should be made clear in law that the federal government should always be in the back seat.
Jeb Bush, a Republican, was governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007.