The Key to Education Reform is “Parent Power”

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The Senate will soon debate thecenterpiece of President Bush’s education plan: his proposal to require eachstate to adopt education standards in reading, math, science and history; totest all children in grades three through eight; and to have the federalgovernment looking over the states’ shoulders to make sure they do what hewants.

This is a strange position for President Bush to take. After all, he takespride in his role as a “uniter not a divider.” Yet his education policythreatens to ignite acrimonious divisions through the country.

President Bush surely has the best of intentions. He and millions ofAmericans are dissatisfied with the job the public schools are doing.Despite major spending increases over the last several decades, there is asense that most children are not getting as good an education as theyshould. Huge sums of money are spent each year on remedial education incolleges and corporations, indicating that students are not learning enough.

But the president’s approach is the wrong one.

He begins with the reasonable principle that schools need to be heldaccountable for what they do -- or don’t do. As he says, there must beconsequences for failure. Fair enough.

But President Bush’s idea is to have one level of government hold anotherlevel of government accountable for its educational performance. That is aflawed strategy. First, making Washington the judge of the performance ofpublic schools advances an ominous trend toward centralization that has beenoccurring for decades. Conservatives used to oppose that trend. Apparentlythe compassionate variety sees the issue differently.

The time-honored arguments against centralization still stand.Centralization undermines competition, which, in the words of Nobel LaureateF.A. Hayek, is a “discovery procedure.” The Bush plan will deprive us of theprocess that will lead to the discovery of better ways of educating.

The president’s lip service to state flexibility cannot change that fact.His plan would require each state to have a unified standard and testingbased on that standard. But where there is a single standard imposed therecan be no competition. Furthermore, the feds will be checking up on thestates with expanded use of the National Assessment of Educational Progresstest. Since federal money will be at stake, there will be a de facto federalstandard imposed on the states.

Government education standards do not just stifle the competitive process.They set off bitter disputes among parents, teachers and interest groups. Ifthere is to be one approach to teaching science or history or reading ormath, everyone will fear that someone else’s values will be forced on him.The results are likely to be desperate battles staged before local schoolboards and state departments of education. This has happened repeatedly allover the country. The idea that education standards can be uncontroversialis a variant of the fallacy that education can be value-free. The fightsover how to teach math, reading and science have been just as bitter as thefights over how to teach history.

The president insists that accountability is the key to improvement. He isabsolutely right. But accountability to whom? He says the states should beaccountable to the federal government. But that is just that sort of ersatzaccountability that has brought education to its present condition.

We are in roughly the 150th year of an experiment in which governments --not parents -- make all the big decisions about education. Teachers andadministrators are theoretically accountable to school boards, which aretheoretically accountable to state governments. Giving a larger role to astill higher, more distant level of government hardly sounds promising.

Instead, we need real accountability. Let’s call it Parent Power. Parentsshould be free to control their own money and buy the educational servicesthey believe are best for their children. Entrepreneurs and schools shouldbe free to offer services directly to parents. Governments can help bycutting taxes, and others can help, as they do now, by financingscholarships.

The key to this approach is that the people with the strongest interest inthe children -- their parents -- would make the big decisions. If they wereunhappy with a school, they could take their money elsewhere on a moment’snotice, without first clearing it with a bureaucracy. That’s realaccountability.

In turn, Parent Power would stimulate competition among educationentrepreneurs, who would generate the best ideas about how children shouldbe educated.

The Republican Party would do well to return to its earlier, sounder beliefthat parents are better qualified to fix the education system thanWashington.

Sheldon L. Richman

Sheldon Richman is editor of Ideas on Liberty journal and author of the new Cato study, "Parent Power: Why National Standards Won�t Improve Public Education."