Jeb gets education right

by Frederick M. Hess

ThinkstockPhotos-473811162 On Monday, Jeb Bush’s campaign issued his education plan, and it’s a strong plan on his signature issue. For Jeb, this may be a case of too little, too late. But if nothing else, the ten-page plan deserves to be carefully filed as a template for where the GOP should be this fall.

It’s vital that conservatives offer a coherent vision of education reform. In the 21st century, education is the fountainhead of opportunity. Schooling equips Americans for citizenship and success, and, in ways that tax cuts and deregulation cannot, education signals a visceral commitment to democratizing opportunity. It’s no coincidence that education was integral to the governance of George W. Bush, the only Republican to win the presidency in the past quarter-century. His pledge to “leave no child behind” broadened his appeal and reassured suburban dads and soccer moms that his vision of American opportunity extended to everyone.

The problem is that Washington conservatives can have trouble tackling education in a manner that is faithful to principle. It has proven all too easy for them to lapse into ineffectual but superficially appealing progressive prescriptions — embracing new regulations, Washington-centric solutions, bureaucratic expansion, the language of racial grievance, and increased spending.

That brings us to Jeb Bush, the candidate who started the 2016 cycle as the GOP favorite before his long, steep slide. Entering the race, he drew heavily on his illustrious record as an education reformer. He’d spent the better part of two decades building a well-deserved reputation as the Right’s authority on education. He has fought the tough fights — championing vouchers and charter schooling, online learning, accountability, and the radical notion that we should pay great educators more than lousy ones. Of course, this accomplished record has been overshadowed in the past few years as Bush became the leading GOP apologist for the Common Core, even as that venture became a plaything of the Obama administration and a target of ire on the right.

On Monday, the Bush campaign finally released its education agenda. It’s hard to fathom why it took a year to develop and release this ten-page document — and why the campaign released it on a national holiday, two weeks before a fiercely contested Iowa contest in which Bush is a non-factor. It’s a shame, because if this document had been issued last May, it would have helped flesh out Bush’s agenda while people were still paying attention.

Still, better late than never — and the plan is first-rate. It’s as notable for what’s not there as for what is. Eschewing divisive pandering on “racial achievement gaps,” the plan bracingly argues that education must better serve all Americans. Its first paragraph proclaims, “Choice, innovation and transparency have transformed practically every part of our lives, and yet our schools remain artifacts of another century.”

There’s no talk of the Common Core. Instead, there’s a sharply worded commitment to freeing states from Washington’s whims. The plan argues, “Empowering individuals doesn’t require additional money or programs designed by Washington. What we need is a national focus on fueling innovation and providing quality choices for every student in this country.” The plan calls for reducing the size of the U.S. Department of Education by 50 percent and for expanding choice, promoting transparency, and reducing regulations in order to support innovation.

The boldest strokes are in higher education, with a proposal to replace today’s “confusing, burdensome” federal loan program with an income-based financing system. Every high-school graduate would be given access to a $50,000 line of credit (about the amount currently available to independent undergraduates), with students repaying the loan as a percentage of their future income. Economically successful students would pay back up to 1.75 times the amount borrowed, while others would pay back less. The presumption is that the new program would cost no more, on balance, than today’s system. In addition to the $50,000, low-income students would also have access to a revamped Pell grant.

Families would be able to turn existing 529 plans into Education Savings Accounts, allowing individuals and families to save tax-free for lifelong education — from early-childhood programs through mid-career job retraining. The plan would encourage giving to low-income children by making contributions to their accounts tax-deductible. Bush would allow states to take the potpourri of existing federal early-childhood programs and voucherize them for eligible families. This is a nifty way to allow those states that opt in to cut through the web of regulations accompanying the $22 billion now disbursed through 44 federal programs.

Bush’s plan calls for doubling federal support for charter schooling and for supporting the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program — while making clear that all new spending is to be offset by cuts elsewhere in the education budget. The plan shows a clear, principled respect for state authority while allowing states (if they so wish) to use funds in ways that support and expand choice. Quite rightly, the plan sketches a federal role in supporting research and ensuring that parents and voters have good information on school performance, while taking pains to call for strong privacy protections.

It says a lot about the 2016 race that all of this seems far afield from the stuff of the campaign. But Bush’s plan offers creative thinking and a coherent vision of where conservatives should be on education. It champions families, state authority, innovation, research, and transparency. It talks in unifying terms and speaks to practical concerns. It’s budget-neutral and makes clear that calling for Washington to do more is not the same thing as working to improve education. Whoever ultimately claims the GOP nomination, they’d do well to draw on Bush’s principled education plan come this fall.

Frederick M. Hess  is Resident Scholar and Director of Education Policy Studies at American Enterprise Institute.

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