For weeks now, Congress has been debating the centerpiece of President Bush's education plan: a proposal to require each state to adopt education standards in reading, math, science, and history; to test all children in grades 3-8; and to have the federal government looking over the states' shoulders to ensure they abide by the new rules.
This is a strange position for President Bush to take. After all, he takes pride in his role as a "uniter, not a divider." Yet his education policy threatens to ignite acrimonious divisions across the country.
President Bush doubtless has the best of intentions. He and millions Americans are dissatisfied with the job the public schools are doing. Despite major spending increases over the last several decades, there is a sense that most children are not getting as good an education as they should. Huge sums of money are spent each year on remedial education in colleges 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 held accountable for what they do — or don't do. As he says, there must be consequences for failure. Fair enough.
But President Bush's idea is to have one level of government hold another level of government accountable for its educational performance. That is a flawed strategy. First, making Washington the judge of the performance of public schools advances an ominous trend toward centralization that has been occurring for decades. Conservatives used to oppose that trend. Apparently the compassionate variety sees the issue differently.
The time-honored arguments against centralization still stand. Centralization undermines competition, which, in the words of Nobel Laureate F. A. Hayek, is a "discovery procedure." The Bush plan will deprive us of the process 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 maintain a unified standard and testing based on that standard. But where there is a single standard imposed there can be no competition. Furthermore, the feds will be checking up on the states with expanded use of the National Assessment of Educational Progress test. Since federal money will be at stake, there will be a de facto federal standard 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. If there is to be one approach to teaching science or history or reading or math, everyone will fear that someone else's values will hold sway. The results are likely to be desperate battles staged before local school boards and state departments of education. This has happened repeatedly all over the country. The idea that education standards can be uncontroversial is a variant of the fallacy that education can be value-free. The fights over how to teach math, reading, and science have been just as bitter as the fights over how to teach history.
On the other hand, the president insists that accountability is the key to improvement. He is absolutely right. But accountability to whom? He says the states should be accountable to the federal government. But that is just that sort of ersatz accountability 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 and administrators are theoretically accountable to school boards, which are theoretically accountable to state governments. Giving a larger role to a still higher, more distant level of government hardly sounds promising.
Instead, we need real accountability. Let's call it Parent Power. Parents should be free to control their own money and buy the educational services they believe are best for their children. Entrepreneurs and schools should be free to offer services directly to parents. Governments can help by cutting taxes, and others can help, as they do now, by financing scholarships.
The key to this approach is that the people with the strongest interest in the children — their parents — would make the big decisions. If they were unhappy with a school, they could take their money elsewhere on a moment's notice, without first clearing it with a bureaucracy. That's real accountability.
In turn, Parent Power would stimulate competition among education entrepreneurs, who would generate the best ideas about how children should be educated.
The Republican party would do well to return to its earlier, sounder belief: Trust parents to fix the education system, not Washington.