Don’t look to government to reform education

Jeanne Allen Senior Fellow, Center for Education Reform
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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.

It was only after this heyday of reform that the nation’s student achievement began to increase for the first time in decades. Enter NCLB, and an historic alliance between Kennedy and Bush, and suddenly all schools and officials are on their toes to desmontrate progress. Though not an ideal program, NCLB was the first effort to tie federal money to results. The test data it created showed the nation that we are failing a much larger and diverse pool of kids that most believed, and that failure cuts across all of our neighborhoods.

And so President Obama’s $4.3 billion Race to the Top program was born out of a desire to stimulate more success, and reformers got giddy that we actually elected a “reformer” as president. The program, which aims to reward states that can prove or promise they’ll adopt some varation of reform in standards, charters, public school choice, and a teacher quality efforts is actually easy to manipulate.

That manipulation is already happening.  State legislators raced to put the bare minimum of policy changes into place so they could qualify in the first round and are doing so again for the next time they can apply for new federal funds. Meanwhile, the Obama budget increases federal spending for conventional (and not very successful) education programs by more than 10 percent over prior year historic increases. So while one pool of money is available for those who can boast of reform, the rest rewards the status quo. Race to the Top is a dream–for hungry and word-savvy grant writers.
This isn’t a partisan comment; it’s a fact of life. Under any political party, the Education Department simply is not equipped to see and understand how choices can best be developed and supported in a community, how a teacher can best be evaluated for performance so he stays in that role, how we can close schools and shift around students, get rid of bad teachers and demonstrate success.  How can a program reviewer holed up at a hotel room in Washington know that when Connecticut says it’s going to institute a performance pay model (using carefully selected application language that will yield a higher numerical score) that in actuality, its union contracts prohibit such a reform from occurring? How can a reviewer know that Iowa has no interest in advancing the cause of charters when its application states otherwise?

These are not the issues federal regulators can touch or affect, and so the best-intentioned programs at all federal agencies end up not having very much effect. And that’s why growing the federal role, its reach and its funding is a disincentive for real education reform. But we don’t teach that in school, and so the public has long believed that the federal government actually helps their schools. The people’s disenchantment with Washington should extend to the halls of the Education Department, where years of successful state-driven charter, choice, and standards related reforms could be replaced once again by the top-down, “manna from Washington is the solution” mentality.

Bring on the Tea Party. Next stop—Education Department.

Jeanne Allen, the founder and president of The Center for Education Reform (CER), is one of America’s leading authorities on charter schools, school choice, teacher quality, and accountability. A mother of four, Jeanne is the author of “The School Reform Handbook: How to Improve Your Schools.”