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The G. O. P. Education Opportunity

Ohanian Comment: Finn has hopes that Bush's second term will be all about choice, choice, choice.

Will President Bush and his invigorated Republican allies in Congress seize their new opportunity to reshape federal education policy for the 21st century?

One can hope.

Education, as many have noted, loomed small during the campaign, save for the "yes I did, no you didn't" wrangling over the adequacy of NCLB appropriations. The President tendered some nebulous and generally predictable ideas for the second term, notably the suggestion that high schools be brought under the NCLB accountability mandate. Mr. Kerry mostly talked about spending. And sundry voter surveys indicate that, as one might have expected, education was not much on voters' minds. (Most of those who said it was a key consideration favored the Democratic ticket.) Nobody can be sure if that's because the candidates failed to make the topic significant or because people are simply more concerned about other things.

Immediately after his victory, the President enumerated his high-priority agenda items for the second term, and he included education on that list. But how he talked about it is revealing. His other domestic initiatives could be termed part of the "ownership society." They would empower individuals and families to make their own decisions and direct their own resources: shaping their own social security, finding the health care that suits them, keeping more of their after-tax income, setting aside funds for the college of their choice, etc. Only when talking about K-12 education did he speak in terms of institutions, indeed of governmental institutions: "make public schools all they can be" was the key Bush phrase. Here he spoke of providers, not consumers, of the delivery system rather than its clients.

There is, of course, much to be said for improving the K-12 delivery system and plenty of reason to focus on high schools. The real fall-off in U.S. achievement begins in the middle grades and worsens after 8th grade, and we have evidence aplenty that, even as a woefully large number of young people fail to graduate from high school, a huge fraction of those who do are unprepared for college-level academics or the modern workplace. (See the new ACT study we reviewed last week, http://www.edexcellence.net/foundation/gadfly/issue.cfm?id=169#2051.) We can also anticipate that any serious federal effort to strengthen high-school education and hold these schools to account for their results will bring controversy galore. (For example, what about the 25 states that have so far opted not to institute a high-school graduation test? Should Uncle Sam press them on this?)

Yet something is wrong with this picture. Focusing on high schools, important and worthy as it is, is also what John Kerry would have done as president. It has nothing in particular to do with the election results. It has little to do with the GOP mandate, such as it is, or the "ownership society." And it has naught to do with the moral values and faith issues that are said by most analysts to have shaped the election results--and differentiated Republicans from Democrats.

The proper GOP focus these next four years would be to bring the ownership society into primary-secondary education by invigorating and accelerating America's progress toward universal school choice. That's the K-12 equivalent of giving people a say over their health care and their social security investments. Give them a say over where (and how and from whom) their children learn. Not so much over what they learn; the core of the curriculum, in my view, is properly subject to statewide (or even national) academic standards and test-based accountability. That's where NCLB comes in, along with its extension to the high-school grades. But that has little to do with the delivery system or with choice among schools.

There are innumerable ways in which this goal could be advanced from Washington. Let me mention just five:

1. Turn NCLB's dual promise of "public school choice" and "supplemental education services" into reality by erasing the boundaries that constrain those choices (e.g., school districts), creating alternative mechanisms to operate these programs in states and districts that are hostile to them, seeding thousands more charter schools, and making it harder for states and districts to obstruct their spread. (As has happened in New York, for example. See "Sharp decline in transfers to new schools," by Elissa Gootman, New York Times, November 11, 2004.)

2. In the reauthorization of I.D.E.A.--one of Congress's many pieces of unfinished business--give families across the land the option of a Florida-style "McKay" scholarship program so that disabled youngsters can be educated in the school their parents think is best for them. (See "Vouchers for disabled youngsters" for more.)

3. Underwrite the spread of virtual schools and virtual charter schools, thus bringing the benefits of enriched curricula and high-quality instruction, as well as educational options and modern technology, to rural and small-town America and to home-schoolers. (There's even a foreign-policy angle here. Virtual schooling is a terrific way to beam the lessons of democracy into third-world villages and households whose governments--or mullahs--don't want them to learn such things.)

4. Following the new District of Columbia model, make federally subsidized voucher programs available for low-income youngsters in communities that are ready and willing to accept such programs.

5. Using consumer-friendly systems such as GreatSchools.net, bring specific information about school offerings and performance to parents across the land so that they can make informed choices among schools--and do their part to hold schools accountable for results. (NCLB contains the seeds of this, with its testing data and demand for school report cards, but translating that information and getting it into the hands of parents remains a huge challenge.)

Five worthy federal policy initiatives--and that's just the tip of the choice iceberg. (I did not, for example, include pre-school, summer school, or after-school.) If Mr. Bush wants a lasting education legacy from his second term, he should do for the empowerment of parents what, during his first term, he did for the accountability of schools. He might even find a measure of support among Democrats who have figured out that it's neither sound policy nor good politics to remain joined at the hip to the public-school establishment. (See, for example, Andrei Cherny's provocative discussion in The New Republic (subscription required) of an "ownership agenda" for Democrats: http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20041101&s=cherny110104.) And sure, it's fine if Republicans and Democrats also work together to set U.S. high school education on a new course.

— Chester E. Finn, Jr.)
Education Gadfly, Thomas B. Fordham Foundation


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