Give Parents the Reins

As George W. Bush used to say, not every good idea requires a federal program. Holding schools accountable for student achievement is a case in point.

Make no mistake, accountability is a great idea. For years, the education establishment has passed the buck when students fail — making excuses while demanding more time and more money. Now it’s a new century with a new president, but still we hear the same old excuses and the same empty promises that this time, really, the solution lies just around the corner.

But real accountability doesn’t come from politicians. If it did, the past 30 years of declining student achievement would have forced them into the unemployment lines. Genuine accountability can happen only when parents control education spending. Parental choice, through such mechanisms as tax credits for education purposes from tuition to tutoring, makes educators accountable immediately, not in another 10 or 20 years. Until parents can demand that schools do it right and do it now, so-called accountability measures amount to little more than fresh paint on an old jalopy.

What ails education isn’t a lack of standards or testing. All 50 states have exams to test student learning, and 49 states set academic standards. Another test won’t stem declining achievement any more than the hundreds of tests that have gone before.

What’s more, federal standards mean Washington politicians decide which curriculums and policies are best for America’s 53 million schoolchildren. The administration promises local control but has already made it conditional upon the adoption of “high standards in core subjects.” Just remember, he who pays the piper calls the tune.

When parents control education spending, schools that can’t teach will be shut down; schools where children excel and look forward to learning will flourish. Just witness the millions of children on waiting lists for scholarships to private schools. Parents know quality education when they see it.

Instead of promoting federal testing — a proposal sure to end up alongside countless other empty education promises — President Bush should use the bully pulpit to encourage workable reforms at the state level, such as universal education tax credits that will usher in an era of real accountability to parents that is long overdue.

Darcy Olsen is director of education and child policy at the Cato Institute.