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A Primer for Education Policy

by Frederick M. Hess

What the GOP ticket has right; what more it could do

Six years ago, Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was kind enough to visit my employer, the American Enterprise Institute, to discuss a report I’d just co-authored on collective bargaining. Aside from his affection for PowerPoint, what stuck in my mind about Romney was his familiarity with education reform and his willingness to speak frankly about teachers’ unions and teacher pay.

So I was unsurprised that there was much to like in the education program that Romney unveiled this spring in a speech at the Latino Coalition’s Annual Economic Summit. His themes were school choice, innovation, transparency, bang for the buck, and welcoming new education providers (including for-profit ventures).

Now, truth be told, President Obama supports much of this as well. When it comes to federal education policy, the big divide between conservatives and reform-minded progressives is less about what reforms are desirable than about the federal government’s role in implementing them. Liberals would like to see the federal government impose their favored policies on local governments; conservatives argue that, while federal involvement can sometimes be useful, the deepest reforms need to be undertaken by the states voluntarily and tailor-made for local conditions.

Voters are divided as to which candidate offers a more compelling vision. Polling by Gallup that asked respondents to choose a candidate based purely on education policy showed President Obama beating Mitt Romney, 49 percent to 44 percent. Romney would be wise to highlight the few major policy differences he has with the president, explain the costly mistakes that Obama has made in this area, and further flesh out his education plan.

Three key issues on which Romney and Obama differ are No Child Left Behind reauthorization, federal education spending, and school choice. Romney correctly sees No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which was signed into law by George W. Bush, as comprising two distinct components. He supports the testing and transparency provisions, which require states and districts collecting federal funds to regularly assess students in reading, math, and science, and report the results. However, he is ready to jettison the law’s bulky, intrusive prescriptions, such as its “highly qualified teacher” provision, which mandates an emphasis on education-school credentials in staffing classrooms, as well as its “remedy cascade,” which includes six years of mandatory interventions for schools that fail to make “adequate yearly progress.” President Obama has recognized some of these challenges, but he’s also offered incentives for states to change the way they evaluate teachers and seek to “turn around” low-performing schools.

On federal spending, Romney has committed to breaking with the Bush-Obama years. In Bush’s first term, federal K–12 spending nearly doubled, from $29 billion to $56 billion a year, increasing more than it did during the entire Clinton administration. Today, federal K–12 spending stands at $68 billion a year — not counting the $120 billion in stimulus funds that were earmarked for K–12 and higher education. Further, in a recent address, President Obama urged states and districts to spend more, calling Republican proposals to cut education funding “backwards” and “wrong.” Instead of vowing to throw even more money into the system, Romney promises to “focus on ensuring that money is spent well.” Indeed, as Romney has argued, steady infusions of new cash (as in Obama’s stimulus) have blunted the appetite for transformative educational change.

Perhaps Romney’s clearest break with the president comes on school choice. While Obama deserves credit for his vocal support of charter schools, Romney has made it clear he will push harder on school vouchers and efforts to offer online instruction to students. First, Romney has pledged to expand the federally funded voucher program for low-income students in the District of Columbia, a program that President Obama has opposed. Second, Romney has proposed turning more than $25 billion in federal funding for low-income students and special education into vouchers that eligible students could use to attend any public, charter, or private school, or to enroll in a tutoring program or take digital courses.

But it is not enough for Romney to play “me too” with an added dollop of spending restraint and school choice. Obama likes to hold up education as the most compelling example of federal “investment” (clean energy and health care no longer make for great talking points). This makes it especially important for Romney to point out that the president’s education efforts haven’t lived up to their hype.

Romney would do well to note that Race to the Top — Obama’s much-lauded $4.35 billion grant competition, which rewarded states that promised to pursue 19 federally prescribed educational “priorities” — essentially required a union sign-off; that every one of the dozen winning states failed to live up to its airy, expensive promises; that less than 5 percent of the $100 billion–plus in education stimulus funds went to the administration’s education-reform initiatives, while the rest was simply handed out to school districts with no strings attached; and that the administration has berated states and districts for daring to cut education spending — and even adopted Race to the Top criteria that penalized states that sought to tighten their belts.

Romney should also point out that Obama’s education agenda reflects the administration’s enthusiasm for expanding the size and influence of the federal government, often in defiance of the Constitution. For example, the administration has eagerly offered states “conditional waivers” from some of NCLB’s provisions. Some NCLB provisions are nearly impossible for many states to meet, so this places enormous pressure on states to agree to the administration’s conditions. In turn, while these conditions — prescriptions for school improvement and teacher evaluation — are not necessarily bad in themselves, they have never been passed by Congress, and probably could not be, given concerns on both sides of the aisle. Meanwhile, with these kinds of measures, it matters far less whether they are done than how they are done — decades of experience teach that federal pressure is far more likely to yield red tape than effective implementation.

The administration has also taken a sensible initiative — the “Common Core” standards in reading and math that many states have adopted voluntarily — and turned it into a troubling, increasingly politicized push. The president has ignored statutory prohibitions on federal involvement with school curricula, putting $350 million in stimulus funds into Common Core assessments and using Race to the Top funds and NCLB waivers as incentives for states to adopt the Common Core.

Further, while Romney’s proposals have promise, there is a lot of room for improvement. Romney will need to be clearer about the appropriate federal role, instead of settling for vague paeans to choice and “innovation.” He’ll need to argue that everything that matters in schooling is in the execution, and take on the headaches that overcaffeinated federal rulemaking has created.

Especially in K–12 schooling, where 90 percent of the money is provided by states and localities, it can be tough for conservatives to talk about reform without seeming to imply that every idea requires new federal funds or programs. That said, there are at least four notes that Romney and Ryan would do well to strike in the weeks ahead.

Cost Transparency: Call for states and districts to report, as a condition for receiving federal education aid, on the cost-effectiveness of schools, districts, and identified programs. This wouldn’t entail any federal prescriptions, but it would provide parents, voters, and local officials the information they need to make informed decisions.

Help Communities Escape Onerous Contracts: Permit low-performing school systems to get out of contractual commitments made by previous boards. This is especially crucial for districts hamstrung by “evergreen” provisions in statutes or collective-bargaining agreements, which make it functionally impossible to escape bad decisions made decades ago.

Deregulation: Call for a high-profile effort to scour federal regulations and guidance to identify and eliminate bad policies.

Basic Research: Support substantial investment in the kinds of basic research — in brain science, cognition, applied reading techniques, and so forth — that can produce huge leaps in teaching and learning.

Obama deserves his due. He’s fought for the right things. But he has a big weakness: With education, as with so much else, he fails to recognize the limits on what the federal government can or should do. Romney will embrace a more modest federal role, be better able to challenge the teachers’ unions, and focus on making sure that education dollars are spent wisely.

– Mr. Hess is the director od education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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