Give Parents the Reins

This essay appeared in USA Today on Jan. 24, 2001.

As George W. Bush used to say, not every good idea requires a federalprogram. Holding schools accountable for student achievement is a case inpoint.

Make no mistake, accountability is a great idea. For years, the educationestablishment has passed the buck when students fail -- making excuses whiledemanding more time and more money. Now it's a new century with a newpresident, but still we hear the same old excuses and the same emptypromises that this time, really, the solution lies just around the corner.

But real accountability doesn't come from politicians. If it did, the past30 years of declining student achievement would have forced them into theunemployment lines. Genuine accountability can happen only when parentscontrol education spending. Parental choice, through such mechanisms as taxcredits for education purposes from tuition to tutoring, makes educatorsaccountable immediately, not in another 10 or 20 years. Until parents candemand that schools do it right and do it now, so-called accountabilitymeasures 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 haveexams to test student learning, and 49 states set academic standards.Another test won't stem declining achievement any more than the hundreds oftests that have gone before.

What's more, federal standards mean Washington politicians decide whichcurriculums and policies are best for America's 53 million schoolchildren.The administration promises local control but has already made itconditional upon the adoption of "high standards in core subjects." Justremember, he who pays the piper calls the tune.

When parents control education spending, schools that can't teach will beshut down; schools where children excel and look forward to learning willflourish. Just witness the millions of children on waiting lists forscholarships to private schools. Parents know quality education when theysee it.

Instead of promoting federal testing -- a proposal sure to end up alongsidecountless other empty education promises -- President Bush should use thebully pulpit to encourage workable reforms at the state level, such asuniversal education tax credits that will usher in an era of realaccountability to parents that is long overdue.