President Obama recognized the extraordinary efforts of some ordinary Americans who were his guests in the House chamber for his State of the Union address. One person who didn’t get his attention, though, was Virginia Walden Ford, a tireless advocate for school choice and education reform.
Walden Ford joined several young D.C. Opportunity Scholarship recipients and their parents and teachers as guests of Speaker John Boehner. Their presence in his box for the speech was a clear indication of the importance Speaker Boehner places on empowering parents with educational options for their children.
Boehner’s recognition of these families and Walden Ford’s leadership stands in clear contrast to President Obama’s omission of them and their cause from his uplifting narrative about making the best education possible to all.
That dissonance is at the heart of the major education debate looming in the year ahead. A classic clash of progressives vs. conservatives is brewing in Washington over the future of federal education policy.
For two years, the Obama administration has stood idly by as members of Congress, bowing to union pressure, tried to eliminate the highly successful scholarship program in our nation’s capital. They succeeded in blocking new students from entering. In fact, the Obama administration literally ripped opportunity out of the hands of 216 new students awarded scholarships in 2009 to attend the schools of their parents’ choice — informing the kids that their vouchers had been revoked.
Nothing could better symbolize the liberal education philosophy than taking scholarships away from needy children to put money back into the failing government education monopoly.
For all the bipartisan notes the president sounded in his speech, his administration appears determined to continue to work within the liberal framework as they pursue education policy. The administration may agree with conservatives that No Child Left Behind, the largest federal education law, is broken, but they don’t believe the federal role in education is fundamentally flawed.
The Obama administration still holds onto the hope that this time, Washington will get it right. Yet eight reauthorizations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 have failed to improve achievement or graduation rates. Instead, each reauthorization succeeds in growing the federal role in local schools and increasing federal spending.
And President Obama doesn’t seem to want to change either result. He may have proposed an overall budget freeze in last night’s address, but he made a big caveat for education spending. He pledged new “investments” in education on top of a $100 billion bonus already provided to the Department of Education through the “economic stimulus” legislation.
Conservatives have an entirely different vision for education reform: Dollars and decision-making belong in the hands of those closest to students who know them and their needs best – not with distant, unelected bureaucrats in Washington. Conservatives want to set a course to restore federalism, stop the spending spree and advance parental choice in education.
Washington lacks both the constitutional authority and the capacity to manage local schools. The federal government provides less than 10 percent of the funding that goes to education, but far more of the bureaucracy and red tape.
The path to restoring federalism and excellence in education can begin with the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success (A-PLUS) plan, the conservative alternative to No Child Left Behind. A-PLUS would equip state leaders by allowing them to consolidate dollars from dozens of federal education programs, cut through red tape and prioritize resources to best meet students’ needs.
While the Obama administration tinkers with an outdated model of school reform, A-PLUS offers a new path to restore greatness in American education.
President Obama’s path has been tried and found wanting for a half century. It’s time instead to pursue policies that will empower leaders such as Virginia Walden Ford and the parents she represents.
Lindsey Burke is an education policy analyst and Jennifer Marshall is director of domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in National Review Online