President Bush has unveiled an activist education plan that requires states to improve their worst schools or face sanctions from the federal government. The plan would tie Title I money to the states’ adopting “clear, measurable goals focused on basic skills and essential knowledge” and testing children every year in grades 3 through 8. Meanwhile, the federal government would expand its own national test to check up on the states, resulting in a de facto federal curriculum. Failure to improve could lead to schools’ losing money, which might then be given directly to parents to use for tuition at private schools.
Although some people see the program as revolutionary, it is far from that. Bush 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 the sort of artificial accountability that has brought education to its present unsatisfactory condition. We are in roughly the 150th year of an experiment in which government, not parents, makes all the big decisions about children’s educations. Teachers and administrators are theoretically accountable to school boards, which are theoretically accountable to state governments. Giving a larger role to yet a higher, more distant level of government hardly sounds promising.
What America needs instead is the “debureaucratization” of education, which would make it possible for parents and education entrepreneurs to work together in a competitive marketplace to provide the best education for children. Standards in K‑12 education, like standards in higher education, should be set in a marketplace responsive to parents’ demands and students’ needs. Parent Power, that is, freeing parents to be fully responsible for their children’s education, is the only way to make schools truly accountable.