Don’t look to government to reform education

With CPAC attendees descending on Washington this week, with a new conservative manifesto being penned to protect the Constitution, and with Tea Parties being planned for the spring, I find myself hoping and praying that such small-government fervor infiltrates the ranks of education reformers.

Today’s new brand of education reformers look too often to the federal government, and in particular, the Obama administration, for guidance. It’s understandable. President Obama and his team have masterfully sounded the call over the crisis in education and trumpted many popular reforms such as charter schools and performance pay (alas, not full school choice—what I think of that is most apparent in tonight’s John Stossel Show on Fox Business at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.). Sadly, the new kids on the reform block need some history lessons about where real reform is incubated, and where it’s not.

In rhetoric, Obama can be compared to former Education Secretary and world-wide radio traveler Bill Bennett, whose famous 1987 “Chicago has the worst schools in the nation” remark vilified him with the establishment but called attention to a truth that few in Washington had by that time dared to speak. Now it’s okay, thanks to those who took the early arrows—to admit we not only have a crisis, but that adult jobs—a.k.a. union interests—are the primary reason for this crisis.

Where Obama and hopeful reform fans fall short is in celebrating that the solution to that crisis can be generated from the federal government. With little difficulty the Administration has unleashed a dizzying array of programmatic and policy proposals aimed at reshaping American education. The problem is, they have no history as to how real reform actually occurs, quite successfully, in the absence of a strong federal role. And with a major election on the horizon, the potential for restoring the strong state leadership that once created education reform to begin with is worth recalling.

It was the states that pioneered strong standards in the ’90s, across Virginia, Massachusetts and California to start, without the feds saying they should. It was the states that created the first truly strong charter school laws, before there was a federal grant program, and such laws flourished across both red and blue states. It was the states that enacted school voucher programs, when even the mention of the word “voucher” was anathema in Washington.

And the reforms were bipartisan. The program that made Milwaukee famous—school vouchers—and now graduates kids at rates of 18 percent more than public schools—was shepherded by a Republican white governor and Democrat black councilwoman.