School choice plus standards, assessments, transparency for results, and consequences for failure has been the recipe our nation’s public schools have been following for the past decade under No Child Left Behind.
This work has not been easy. I didn’t think it would be. In fact, it’s been hard. It’s why a lot of adults in the system have pushed back so hard. They don’t like change. They don’t want to be accountable for results. And some simply don’t want the “feds” telling them what to do, which is something they weren’t shy about telling me!
I know it won’t surprise you to hear I fielded the occasional question during my years in the White House as head of the Domestic Policy Council, and then as a Cabinet secretary, about the legitimacy of the U.S. Department of Education. The questioner would ask where in the Constitution it provided for the establishment of the agency, knowing such language did not exist. The message was simple: the federal government should simply stay out.
Sadly the “stay out” message has been exploited and leveraged by powerful teachers’ unions and other entrenched interests, who, with no principled opposition to a federal role in education, just want more taxpayer dollars with fewer strings attached. This “unholy alliance” between the unions and those who want no role for the federal government in education is propping up the status quo on the backs of our most vulnerable children. It’s shameful beyond words.
Here’s why there’s a legitimate role for the federal government in education.
When the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was signed into law in 1965, by any measure, poor and minority students were overwhelmingly denied meaningful educational opportunities because of the abysmal quality of the schools they attended. Then, and now, education remains a civil rights issue. While the federal role in education has been and remains limited, providing less than 10 percent of the total funding for the nation’s public schools, it is focused on our disadvantaged students, helping them to have a shot at the American Dream.
Initially, the federal approach to education policy was to open the purse strings and hope for the best. That changed in 2000 with the election of President George W. Bush. He campaigned on a message of educational opportunity for all children and believed that taxpayers have a right to know where, how, and with what results their dollars are being spent. And once in office, he never let up. Literally, on Day One of his presidency, he made education a priority.
He knew that shining a bright light on how schools were serving our neediest students would expose some significant cracks in the system that would need to be filled. It’s why he pushed to expand federal support for school choice, charter schools and tutoring services. Under NCLB, the federal funds that have gone to support tutoring worked out to about $800 per student. While it was enough to get some extra help, it was not enough to fund the full cost of attendance at another school. So, we expanded support to bring more charter schools online and launched a grant program for charter school facilities.
And in the nation’s capital, President Bush was relentless in pursuit of scholarships for disadvantaged students. In 2004, the District’s Opportunity Scholarships became the first and most robust school choice program ever funded with federal dollars. It is a program that Gov. Romney, as president, would expand and build upon. It would serve as a national model as part of his efforts to put choice policies at the center of K-12 education reform.
So, how does school choice fit into the education reform picture in the next few years? It fits in significant ways. I recently served on a Council on Foreign Relations task force co-chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. The bipartisan task force made a compelling case for why the lack of educational preparedness in the U.S. has become a national security threat. Among its recommendations: provide students with choices as a way to fuel innovation and results.
In anticipation of the GOP Convention in Tampa later this month, it’s worth noting that school choice is not an easy public policy issue. It’s an idea that will continue to meet with fierce opposition from organized interests representing adults in the education system who argue there is nothing wrong with our schools that can’t be fixed by more of the “same old, same old.”
For Republicans in particular, school choice policies can be tricky. On one hand, choice represents the very essence of freedom and local control (directly in the hands of parents and families). On the other hand, requiring states and districts to adopt open enrollment and choice policies will quickly draw criticism of heavy-handedness on the part of the federal government.
Yet, I am an optimist when it comes to the choice agenda moving forward.
Under NCLB, it was Republicans who introduced and fought for choice as a policy tool tied to accountability for academic results. With that foundation, I believe Republicans like John Boehner and Mitt Romney can certainly navigate the likely treacherous waters on this one. But the stormy weather on the horizon also brings out the realist in me. Absent congressional action to reauthorize ESEA, the Obama administration has been handing out waivers to states (run by Democratic and Republican governors alike) that are putting school choice and tutoring services on the cutting room floor.
If maximizing school choice is a goal for the next Republican administration, the next U.S. Secretary of Education will need to keep his or her hands tight on the accountability wheel. Schools, districts and states need to show results in closing stubborn achievement gaps and fixing failing schools. It starts with providing real educational choices.
Margaret Spellings was U.S. Secretary of Education from 2005-2009. She is currently the President and CEO of Margaret Spellings & Company.
Coming up tomorrow: Chester E. Finn Jr., president, Thomas B. Fordham Institute.