Back to school = time for education reform

Jeanne Allen Senior Fellow, Center for Education Reform
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Over the next several weeks, 54.4 million children will go back to school. For many children, the start of school marks the ceremonial end of summer, and a return to the excitement of a new school year.

But for the majority of parents, there is hope and anxiety; hope that things have gotten better but anxiety that it will be more of the same.

Secretary Arne Duncan has said that schools are still lagging. President Obama, like four of his predecessors, says we are not doing enough to turn the tide in American education.

They’re right. Right now, America’s kids are outpaced by children in 35 other countries in math and literacy, and 50 percent of high school students in our nation’s largest cities are dropouts.

And yet today, not only has state and local spending skyrocketed to record highs but the same federal government that acknowledges the continued crisis in education is rebooting stimulus funds — to the tune of $10 billion — to bail out school systems that refuse to balance their budgets!

What can we do when Washington steps in to allegedly rescue schools and, instead, restores old and dated ways for doing business and threatens to reverse any progress we’ve made at closing the achievement gap?

How can we generate changes that truly help disadvantaged children learn, that empower families with the ability to provide a personalized education for their children, that challenge all kids to succeed, and that reward the hard work of rank and file teachers?

Let’s rewind.

The best and most productive gains we have made in education in the last two decades happened in the states, with no federal incentives or intervention. The states are where standards started, where merit pay was first conceived, where the battle to provide school choice to parents and kids was fought for and won, where charter schools were born.

The champions of reform were white and black, Republican and Democratic. And eventually they got the attention of presidents and secretaries of education.  The achievement of kids who benefitted from these reforms in and around their schools showed the American people that improvements could occur, if we’re willing to challenge the status quo and the special interests who continue to fight choice and accountability in American education.

But today those reforms are in danger. Money is now flowing to states without regard to educational outcomes.  These funds will underwrite business as usual, not the reforms that make choice and accountability central to improved schooling. American education is entering a danger zone, and unless state leaders begin to reassert control over education policy and strengthen reform, we risk remaining a nation at risk.

How do we do this?  It’s actually quite simple. Americans must go to the polls in record numbers this November and elect reform-minded governors.

From Tallahassee to Sacramento, we need to elect dedicated men and women who are willing to challenge the status quo, make tough decisions about how money is spent, and reject the temptation to keep failing schools open.

A generation of governors and state lawmakers created the programs that today permit two million children in 40 states and the District of Columbia to attend the schools of their choice. On teacher quality, we’re seeing the results of two decades of debate on the benefits of “merit pay” finally play out in cities and states nationwide.

But as long as states rely on Washington to bail them out whenever they are in a pinch, they will end up strengthening the status quo and rolling back the progress of two decades of education reform.

State-driven choice, accountability, teacher quality. As America goes back to school again, let’s remember that these basic notions can transform all schools for all children, if only the right leaders spearhead the change.

Jeanne Allen is the President of the Center for Education Reform (CER), a Washington, D.C.-based organization driving the creation of better educational opportunities for all children by leading parents, policymakers and the media in boldly advocating for school choice, advancing the charter school movement, and challenging the education establishment.