The State of the Union touched on education from pre-K through higher education, with one overriding theme: more intervention from Washington.
President Obama’s call for billions in new federal spending on a massive preschool program — a Race to the Top for four-year-olds — should be approached with caution. Policymakers at every level of government should be aware that the evidence from existing programs raises doubts about their efficacy — not to mention the significant costs to taxpayers. The type of large-scale government preschool program the Obama administration seeks is more likely to resemble the failed Head Start program than high-quality early-education programs.
The president also talked about the need to improve STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. But his Washington approach has this backwards: Rather than more federal intervention, states should be free to opt out of No Child Left Behind and target dollars toward their top education priorities. If a state wants to prioritize STEM education, it can do so by promoting parental choice in education to ensure students can attend schools that meet their unique learning needs, expanding online learning, allowing for alternative teacher certification, linking teacher pay to performance and differentiating pay to reflect the needs of high-demand fields, and rejecting Common Core national standards and tests (which do not prepare students for quality STEM educations).
Finally, the president discussed increasing access to higher education. More federal subsidies is not the way to increase access to college — more generous subsidies, in fact, enable universities to raise tuition. Since 1982, the cost of attending college has increased 439 percent — more than four times the rate of inflation. Instead, policymakers can take an important first step in increasing access to higher education by decoupling federal financing from accreditation.
Policymakers are in a unique situation to hasten such reform by supporting the customization of higher education for students. In particular, policymakers should back the decoupling of accreditation from federal financial aid subsidies, a reform that would provide independent entities the opportunity to credential courses and skills.
While President Obama’s prescriptions would grow federal intervention at all levels of education, conservatives in Congress have proposals that would actually restore state and local control. As Senator Mike Lee noted in his tea-party response to the SOTU, “inequality — real inequality — is trapping poor children in failing schools to benefit bureaucrats and union bosses. It’s penalizing low-income parents for getting married, or getting better jobs.”
Senator Lee mentioned legislative proposals that would help achieve many of the conservative alternatives above. Senator John Cornyn of Texas has introduced a bill that would allow states to opt out of No Child Left Behind. Senator Tim Scott (R., S.C.) is promoting school choice. And Senator Lee himself is sponsoring legislation to reform higher education accreditation, “making it more accessible and affordable for lower-income and non-traditional students.”
— Lindsey Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education at the Heritage Foundation.