Reforming Education

Published January 17, 2008

Washington Times

Congressional Democrats may put an extension of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) on their legislative agenda for this year, but it seems more likely that nothing will happen before 2009 in order to keep options open for the incoming president. But even without an NCLB extension, President Bush's achievements in education are striking. Student scores on some standardized tests have started rising with the administration's back-to-basics focus, and Republican candidates no longer face an insurmountable credibility deficit on the education issue.

In 2008, Democrats will undoubtedly promise parents with school-age children that another round of new programs and much more federal spending will produce better local schools. Thanks to Mr. Bush, Republicans need not say “me too,” as most voters can now see from NCLB's early success that more federal funding was not, and is not, the answer.

Republicans can compete effectively in 2008 by again embracing Mr. Bush's winning themes of accountability and results, but they should also support changes to NCLB. Parents want rigor and high standards but many also see NCLB as forcing local public schools to be mainly accountable to remote officials in the Department of Education. For Republicans, accountability should mean local schools becoming more responsive to the concerns and wishes of parents.

Not too long ago, most Americans would have found it odd that the federal government was getting involved with local school issues at all. President Lyndon Johnson wanted a federal effort to close the “achievement gap” between rich and poor schools, but he and his aides underestimated the risks associated with muddled political accountability. As soon as the first federal checks were cashed, many state and local officials began blaming low educational performance on insufficient “federal commitment” and unfunded mandates.

Over the years, Congress has also found it impossible to resist “mission creep” in education matters, creating scores of new grant programs with unrelated missions. Unfortunately, none of these programs, including the main elementary and secondary education program (Title I), have had any measurable impact on actual student academic performance, in poor schools or anywhere else. An independent evaluation of Title I found that “despite its ambitious mandate, [the program] has been a relatively minor educational intervention.” Other programs have done even less, and some have been found to do more harm than good.

In 2000, while he was governor of Texas, Mr. Bush changed the focus with a simple question: Are students learning what they need to succeed in America or not? After years of education fads and failed experiments, parents were ready for common sense. And, for now, it is working. Schools have zeroed in like never before on what really matters academically, particularly in reading and math, and test scores have risen accordingly.

But NCLB leans too heavily on the Education Department to drive reform, which is a recipe for long-term mediocrity. Political pressure is already building to ease up on the performance criteria to ensure more passing grades. In fact, the congressional committees overseeing NCLB's possible extension are preparing various ways to water down the testing benchmarks. In the end, bureaucratic enforcement of educational standards seems all but certain to become a means for validating the status quo.

What's needed now is a renewed emphasis on a strong parental role in education. For too long, parents have been an afterthought in education policy, even as studies continue to confirm they are the key to educational success. Indeed, hands-on parental involvement has been found to be more important than socioeconomic status in predicting a child's academic achievement.

Parents, of course, want strong reading and math programs, but they also want their schools to help them stress self-discipline, respect for authority and peers and the difference between right and wrong. Only parents, not the government, can properly assess if a school is meeting expectations in these crucial matters.

Of course, the best way to give parents more control over education, and to get them more involved as well, is with meaningful school choice, which many Republicans have been pushing with admittedly limited success for years.

There is reason to hope the political environment will become more conducive to a school-choice breakthrough soon. NCLB-driven testing is producing a large repository of data that will become a powerful tool for evaluating what works and what doesn't in education. Who can be trusted to put this data into proper context and use it to push for sensible reforms with only the interests of students in mind? For most Americans, the answer will be obvious: the parents.

— James C. Capretta, who served as associate director of the Office of Management and Budget (2001-04), is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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