This doesn't mean the role won't be significant, though. The next president will have a chance to re-write the federal law overseeing K-12 education. In doing so, he must decide whether America's children are better served by myriad new funding streams from Washington aimed at sundry problems and by creating new programs or by overhauling the existing federal 35-year-old structure to refocus resources on Lyndon B. Johnson's goal of closing the achievement gap.
Many, including the Progressive Policy Institute, have called for a more focused federal role, one that emphasizes the needs of disadvantaged students, and places a higher premium on accountability. Others, like the teachers unions, have called for more funding to reduce class sizes and raise teacher salaries. The next president must decide if he will side with children or with public-school employees. The next president could also elevate up to three new justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, not to mention hundreds of federal appointments. Given that the future of many school-choice programs depends on a Supreme Court decision, any shift in the current make-up of the Court (which many believe will find a well-crafted choice program constitutional) could be significant.
True, constitutional scholars such as Harvard's Laurence Tribe have said that "any objections that anyone would have to a voucher program would have to be policy-based and could not rest on legal doctrine." But a president could make the mistake of selecting an anti-school-choice judge who will be prone to legislate from the bench. If that happens, thousands of poor children who might otherwise attend a better school thanks to a school-choice program will be left behind.
Currently federal-education programs are hostile to school choice. For instance, parents can use the funding in existing Education Savings Accounts at a public or private university of their choice, but, despite congressional approval, they can't save for their children's K-12 expenses at a school of choice. The next president can sign the expansion of Education Savings Accounts into law and help remove all barriers that currently prohibit states from using federal funds on the reforms of their choice (including school choice).
And the next president and the person he selects to run the Department of Education will have access to one of the nation's loudest microphones. How well they use their posts to tout the right reforms will most definitely affect how parents, teachers, and principals teach children. Consider how adept President Bill Clinton has been at using the bully pulpit to talk about our nation's schools. His recent campaign to reduce class sizes is but one example of how a small idea can gain national prominence with the help of a president.
Next to him, former Secretary of Education William Bennett was (and remains) another effective user of the national mike. He uses it to talk about standards and accountability. In fact, even then-Gov. Clinton noted that "a lot of what [Bennett] has said in calling for greater accountability has been a net plus." Other examples of using the bully pulpit include the famous Charlottesville summit, which brought the nation's governors together with President George H. W. Bush to discuss education. This effort later gave birth to America 2000, a set of education goals Governors and state officials promised to reach by the year 2000. And the "Nation At Risk" report, initiated by then-Secretary of Education Terrell Bell, remains to this day the most well-known document raising questions about the direction of our nation's schools. The next president could set in motion a flurry of reforms at the local level by using the bully pulpit constructively.
Having a leader who tackles the difficult issues facing our nation's schools - instead of one who merely toys with the soundbite friendly ones - will no doubt affect where our schools will land four years down the road. Tomorrow will in fact be an important day for education.
Nina Shokraii Rees was a senior education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation
Published in National Review Online