The Corner

Congress Should Take Its Time on Education Reform in 2011

America’s K–12 public-education system is failing, but Congress needs to look before it leaps on education reform.

The education system is an anchor dragging down the economic aspirations of the next generation and the United States as a whole. The brunt of its failure is visited upon the poorest of our center-city minorities, making it a civil-rights issue. These dual dramas have made for a filmmaker’s dream, as witnessed by Waiting for Superman and The Lottery.

In light of this, it is encouraging to see the new year begin with a Washington Post op-ed by Education secretary Arne Duncan on the importance of building on the reforms of No Child Left Behind to improve K–12 education in the United States. As is widely recognized, education reform represents an area in which the desire for — and substance of — reform is bipartisan. Thus, one line of reasoning is that this should be the first item of business for the new Congress, thereby establishing an ability to undertake bipartisan actions.

This gets it wrong for four reasons. First, Congress has serious and pressing issues to resolve regarding the federal government’s overspending addiction and the upcoming debt limit, and those should come first. Education reform is not a dollar issue. Inflation-adjusted spending per student has roughly doubled over the past 20 years, but achievement has gone down — the problem is one of accountability.

Accountability has three facets. First, it must be built upon a foundation of increased opportunity for school choice. If failure for students means failure for the teaching bureaucracy, that’s accountability. Second, it includes such state-level efforts as Florida’s, which gives grades to schools and energizes parents to demand improvements in subpar performers. Finally, it includes oversight of federal programs to ensure that the taxpayers’ dollars are used effectively.

Second, while there are areas of agreement between Republicans and Democrats, members need to take some time to find out what is happening on the ground before rushing to pass a reauthorization bill. This is especially true given the large influx of nearly 100 new House members and senators, all of whom will need to get up to speed on the facts in an area where urban legend often rules.

For example, how did states and localities spend the stimulus funding (nearly $100 billion), “EduJobs” funding ($10 billion), and Race to the Top money they’ve gotten? Many states passed laws in the last year to improve their charter-school laws and to change the way they compensate high-performing teachers, in efforts to win Race to the Top grants. But the Race to the Top winners are only just now beginning to implement the reforms described in their applications. Are these reforms effective? Are they good models for others states? Given the importance of identifying and rewarding quality teaching (and identifying and eliminating low-quality teaching), these are questions that must be answered before taking the next steps.

Third, as Congress takes steps to improve the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the top priority must be to keep students, parents, teachers, and communities first, as they are the ones on the front lines and most able to improve student achievement. This requires serious outreach, not the kind of Washington-centric, ram-it-through-before-they-catch-us mentality that has prevailed in the past two years.

Finally, as members of Congress scrutinize the current law and digest the new reforms taken by states and localities, they must first and foremost ensure that their reauthorization balances the federal and local roles. The voters have made clear their distaste for federal overreach. Thus, for example, mandating that states adopt Common Core curriculum standards in order to receive funds is a step in the wrong direction. Instead, states should have the freedom to take this step on their own. At the same time, pretending that 100 percent local control would work is to de facto condemn the very students who need freedom from their failing schools. Getting this balance right will take time.

The 112th Congress should reform K–12 education. But getting it right is more important than getting it done quickly.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin is president of the American Action Forum.


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