Commentary

“Ownership Society” Should Start with Education

Since his re-election, President Bush has spoken a number of times about domestic reforms designed to create an “Ownership Society.” Among the best known of those proposed reforms are personal Social Security accounts and health savings accounts that would give individuals, rather than government, control over their financial futures and health care.

Both of those initiatives are essential reforms, and an Ownership Society itself is desperately needed. But there is a third component that should be included in this agenda: education.

If an Ownership Society means anything, it should mean giving parents control over their children’s education. When children are assigned by bureaucrats to a government school, as they are today, parents lose that control, and the government in effect robs parents of their rights and authority.

Unfortunately, President Bush’s signature education legislation, the No Child Left Behind Act, has had the effect of concentrating control over children’s education in the worst of all places: Washington, D.C. Under that law, not only are most children still forced to go to government schools, but local and state governments — the levels of government closest to parents — have been stripped of control over everything from curricula to teacher qualifications, with that power now resting with the federal government. Federal officials now dictate that all public school children must take reading and math tests in third through eighth grade, as well as once in high school, and that children must be taught from a federally approved, “scientifically based,” curriculum.

The White House is very proud of No Child Left Behind. As amply expressed in the executive summary of “Education: The Promise of America,” a policy book available on the White House Web site, “The law insists that testing, accountability, and high standards will join with record new funding to help ensure educational excellence for every child.” Whenever “the law insists” on anything having to do with education, parents don’t gain ownership — they lose it.

The good news is that the election just past has given Republicans greater majorities in Congress than in Bush’s first four years, and congressional Republicans generally are friendlier to the Ownership Society ideals than their Democratic counterparts or their fellow party member in the White House. By making primary and secondary education part of the ownership society, congressional Republicans would show that they trust parents to make the most important decisions about their own children. Moreover, giving people a say over where and from whom their children learn would do for K-12 education what personal Social Security accounts and health savings accounts would do for retirement and health care.

Unfortunately, it appears that the president will continue to push federal education policy further away from the ideals of the Ownership Society. For his second term, he’s proposing more federal money for job training, expanded federal reading programs, and extending federal testing requirements to all grades between three and 11. All new spending, like that new federal job training and reading programs, ultimately betrays the spirit of the Ownership Society, suggesting that the federal government knows better how to benefit people with taxpayer money than taxpayers themselves. However, it is the third proposal — expanding testing to almost every grade in K-12 — that shows most directly that Bush prefers to increase the ability of bureaucrats, rather than parents, to dictate what a child will learn in school and when she’ll learn it.

Another indication of Bush’s move away from an educational Ownership Society is his nomination of Margaret Spellings to be the next U.S. secretary of education. Little is known about Ms. Spellings other than that she has been a Bush aide for many years and was in large part the architect of No Child Left Behind. That suggests strongly that she will work vigorously to carry out the president’s plan to extend No Child Left Behind to high schools. Perhaps even more troubling are early media indications that she opposes, or at least lacks enthusiasm for, reforms designed to truly empower parents, such as school choice. As reported by the New York Post, Spellings is “no champion of school vouchers.”

An Ownership Society is a good society, a society in which the people control their own destinies. President Bush has acknowledged that, concluding that empowering individuals is good for retirement planning and health care. Unfortunately, when it comes to education, his conclusions appear to be different.

David Salisbury is director and Neal McCluskey is a policy analyst with the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute.