Opportunity Should Take Priority in Education

logoBy William J. Bennett & Christopher Beach

This is the first in a series on the majory policy ideas — from Left and Right — that should guide the next presidential administration’s agenda. (For the opposing view, see Richard D. Kahlenberg, “Stronger Together in Education.”)

BN-PJ622_peters_P_20160812144348Conservatives agree that one of our primary goals for education reform should be to siphon power and authority away from Washington, D.C. and return it to where it belongs: the states, local districts, and families. But, at the same time, states and districts must institute high standards and rigorous accountability systems.

This may make for a nice sound bite on the campaign trail, but what does it mean in terms of policy? And how could it be accomplished?

That will be the crucial question facing the next Republican administration. Education spending and power must be decentralized from Washington; however, returning money and authority to the states and districts is far more complicated than it sounds. Every federal program, particularly Title I, has strings a mile long attached to it. Webs of bureaucratic red tape surround federal programs and are meant to preserve Washington, D.C. as the power source behind education dollars and decisions.

When I took over as education secretary in 1985 for Ronald Reagan, our budget was $18.9 billion. We cut it down to $17.7 billion in 1986. (When was the last time that happened at a federal department?) In 2015, the Department of Education’s budget was $87.3 billion, employing thousands of people throughout a maze of federal buildings. All told, we spend over $600 billion per year on education as a country. The Department has become living and breathing evidence of Reagan’s own maxim that “A government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”

Hundreds of billions of dollars spent, legions of education experts and bureaucrats come and gone, and yet, our test scores have made only minor improvements at best. Reading scores in all grades are only up a few points over the past few decades. The one bright spot has been the decent improvements in math in the younger grades. But it is certainly not anything to boast about, and compared to many of our international competitors, we’re falling way behind. According to international testing, American students are ranked 24th internationally in reading and 36th in math. We’ve become the world’s “C” student. All this in spite of the fact that we spend more per student than nearly every other country in the world.

Should Republicans take back the White House in 2017, there is obviously much work to be done. For starters, a Republican White House could shrink the Department of Education’s budget dramatically. The larger the Department becomes the more focus there is on Washington D.C. — rather than on the states and districts where education policy is actually implemented and where real differences can be made. Diminishing federal control of education certainly won’t be easy, but progress is possible.

In fact, enormous progress has already been made with the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). One of the important features of ESSA is that it explicitly bars the federal government from intruding and demanding specific standards or curricula as a requirement to receive federal dollars. This ends the controversy surrounding Common Core and returns to the states the authority to choose their own standards without threat of punishment from the federal government. This is a big deal.

Republicans have record control at the state level right now: There are 31 Republican Governors and Republicans currently hold the governorship and both houses of the legislature in 23 states — a record in the history of the party.

As a consequence, ESSA gives Republicans a golden opportunity to take the lead on education reform, something they’ve ceded to liberals for far too long. But they need to do so wisely and prudently, pushing for accountability standards that raise expectations, not lower them, that demand performance, not paper over failures.

At the federal level, a future Republican administration should scale back its footprint dramatically and focus on oversight. It can use the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and other accountability metrics to keep track of student performance. NAEP, also known as the nation’s report card, is widely regarded on both sides of the political spectrum as one of the best, most rigorous, and fairest exams we have in this country. It is run by its own independent board and is detached from the politics of education. When I was secretary of education I actually increased funding to NAEP in order to beef it up and increase its availability. Why? If we’re going to know how our nation’s students are performing, we need a serious, credible benchmark that is immune from Washington’s ever-changing political scene and can give an honest assessment across state lines. A Republican White House shouldn’t be afraid to trumpet NAEP results and report on state progress.

At the state level, Republicans should pursue the Massachusetts model, sometimes referred to as the “Massachusetts Miracle” in education circles.

In the 1990s, Massachusetts adopted a series of serious education reforms, including crafting rigorous, high-quality standards with aligned assessments and exams. It also made major reforms to its teacher licensure program, including tough subject area licensing tests for prospective teachers and licensing renewal requirements for current teachers.

Imagine that: tests to make sure teachers actually know what they’re teaching their students. It may make a lot of sense to you and me, but teachers’ unions, of course, were outraged. Nevertheless, the reforms went forward, and teachers who couldn’t pass the tests were not hired or had their licenses revoked.

Sure enough, the reforms worked. By the early 2000s, Massachusetts led the country year after year in NAEP scores for fourth and eighth-graders. According to 2011 data from the Program for International Student Assessment, if Massachusetts were a country it would be 9th in the world in math. That is a tremendous accomplishment — one that occurred on a bipartisan basis, by the way. And it proves that these education reforms are not only a good idea but also actionable.

Now, let’s turn to perhaps the most complicated area of the federal versus state tug-of-war: federal funding and how to free it up for states to use as they see fit.

Take Title I funding as an example. According to the 2017 budget, the United States will spend approximately $15 billion on Title I. Where does all this money go? Most of it ends up channeling through states and into local districts, but with countless strings attached. Almost none of this money goes directly to individual schools or children.

So when the federal government claims it is already providing the money to the states and local districts, that’s true, in a sense. In practice, the strings are so numerous and restrictive that localities have hardly any control over how the money is spent. And under this administration, it has been getting even worse.

An obvious example is the current “supplement-not-supplant” debate. It has long been the law that any states or district receiving Title I funding is not allowed to use that money to supplant the funding that it would have sent to low-income schools. The rub is over who gets to decide the formulas for funding, and how they should be implemented. ESSA explicitly bars the Department of Education from requiring a specific funding methodology. However, as its final act in office, President Obama’s Department of Education is attempting to bully states into having funding methodology requiring at least as much spending in Title I as in non-Title I schools.

This may seem like an obscure rule — and it is — but it has huge complications. For example, Title I schools often pay their teachers smaller salaries (primarily because it is hard to get teachers into these schools). The Department of Education’s rule would force a massive shift or expansion of funding to those schools to make up the difference. Even the Republican’s biggest opponent in education — the national teachers’ unions, specifically the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association — opposed the first draft of these regulations. The regulations have since been modified but without substantial change, and it appears that this issue will be settled in court or by whoever controls the next administration.

On day one, a Republican administration could lift the Department of Education off the states’ backs and allow them to determine their own funding methodology, while also keeping to the letter of the law and requiring states to supplement and not supplant Title I funding.

When I was Secretary of Education, my department conducted a survey of the states and asked them what federal program they liked best. We weren’t looking for a pat on the back, but were genuinely interested in what federal programs were working. Their answer? Block grants. The reason is simple: The states and local districts are closer to the classroom than the bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., and they wanted the autonomy to spend their dollars as they saw fit. This raises an obvious question: Why even take the money from them in the first place?

Republicans could model federal programs after successful existing state programs (such as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship) and allow Title I dollars to follow the students to the respective schools. This would increase school choice exponentially. The remaining Title I dollars that go towards infrastructure and other school resources could be transformed into block grants to the states.

There is one other glaring change that must be made when it comes to the federal versus state struggle. It concerns civil rights.

I believe the federal government has a role in protecting individuals against genuine discrimination (emphasis on genuine). This falls under the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) within the Department of Education. In its original intent, the office is warranted, but lately it has become notoriously over-burdening. Under the guise of civil rights, OCR has abused its authority and sought to micromanage schools and districts.

The most glaring OCR abuse in recent memory was its “Dear Colleague” letter to all public schools mandating that they allow transgender students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice. The letter also states that schools may not ask for any documentation or medical records of the student’s gender identity or risk violation of civil rights. The potential abuses of this absurd rule are obvious. Schools must be able to prevent ill-intentioned boys from wandering into girl’s bathrooms and locker rooms. Many states have appealed the policy via lawsuit, and it will likely go before the Supreme Court for a final decision.

A Republican Department of Education could stop these ridiculous overreaches immediately and allow local districts and schools to craft policy that protects all students, particularly young girls. Many schools already have private, single stall bathrooms for transgender students. But that’s apparently not enough for President Obama’s Department of Education; all public schools must also be forced to comply with their regulations. Teachers, principals, and parents around the country would welcome the deregulation from Washington’s long and overbearing reach.

If Republicans are fortunate enough to occupy the White House in 2017, the education landscape will be ripe with opportunities for reform. Listed above are just several of many concrete changes that a future Republican administration could make on day one to shift the balance of power in education back to the states, local districts, and families. One can only hope they will seize an opportunity of this magnitude should it arise.

William J. Bennett is a former U.S. secretary of education and Chairman of Conservative Leaders for Education. Christopher Beach is Producer of the Bill Bennett Interview and Chief of Staff to William Bennett.

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