Commentary

No Child Left Ahead

Shame on you, South Carolina! You have high academic standards compared to other states, and it’s making you look bad under the No Child Left Behind Act. It’s time to get on the ball, dumb-down “proficiency,” and join everyone else in the race to save face! Indeed, your House of Representatives already got the message, passing recent legislation to let you keep down with the Joneses.

H.R. 4662 — the legislative hero coming to rescue you from relatively meaningful standards — would amend the Educational Accountability Act of 1998 and end the hated Palmetto Achievement Challenge Tests. It would replace PACT with assessments that would supposedly give more timely, diagnostic results, but it would also redesignate outcomes now called “proficient” — the state-defined achievement level NCLB requires all students to hit by 2014 — as “exemplary,” and render so-called proficiency a deceptively lame goal.

[T]his is what you get when government controls the schools and parents have no power.”

This might sound bad to parents who care more about their child’s education than government officials looking good by labeling lots of kids proficient, but they needn’t worry. Last week Rep. Bob Walker (R-Landrum), chairman of the House Education and Public Works Committee, promised that the state isn’t lowering standards. It’s just that “you will see a dramatic increase in your level of proficiency” without any actual boost in student knowledge.

To be fair, South Carolina does have some of the highest proficiency standards in the country. According to a recent U.S. Department of Education comparison of state tests, South Carolina’s standards were more rigorous than all but 1 of 32 states on 4th grade reading; 1 of 34 states on 8th grade reading; 3 of 33 states on 4th grade mathematics; and 1 of 36 states on 8th grade mathematics.

The problem is that only on 8th grade mathematics did South Carolina peg proficiency as high as the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress, and NAEP proficiency supposedly signifies appropriate grade-level knowledge. So in all but 8th grade mathematics South Carolina is saying kids are at grade-level when they’re not (at least according to NAEP), and this would only get worse under H.R. 4662.

Sadly, this is what you get when government controls the schools and parents have no power. The system protects the politicians, teachers, and administrators who run it — everything is distorted, swept under the rug, or simply “made more fair” — and the children suffer. Such trickery and political wagon-circling has been the nationwide response to NCLB, and academic assessments show that it’s been the name of the game at state and local levels for decades.

Thankfully, the solution to the problem is obvious.

First, Washington must eliminate NCLB, which supposedly demands excellence but really drives states to set the lowest, most easily cleared bars possible.

There is some good news on that front. While little will probably be done before the presidential election, two bills would let states out of NCLB without losing taxpayer money. The Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success Act would give states that asked for it more or less free rein over federal education dollars, and the Local Education Authority Returns Now Act would give money directly back to state taxpayers — not bureaucrats — through federal tax credits.

But getting Washington out of education is only the first step. The second is to fundamentally change who has the power in education by taking it away from self-serving state and local officials and giving it to parents. We must implement inescapable accountability by letting parents take the funds intended to educate their children out of schools that don’t satisfy them and put them into schools that do, public or private, home or otherwise.

This does not mean just public school choice, as Superintendent of Education Jim Rex has proffered. That’s intended mainly to placate those who want anything other than what they’ve been stuck with, while keeping power with the people who’ve done the sticking. And remember, whether East Germans could choose a two- or four-door Trabant, without choice of other providers, they were still stuck with a plastic-and-cotton car.

South Carolina joining the race to save face demonstrates once again what achievement data have shown for decades: Public schooling works for the people it employs, not parents and children. To change this, parents must have full school choice, and it’s time to stop taking no for an answer.

Neal McCluskey is associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and author of Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education.