July 23, 2003

July 23, 2003 | Commentary on Education

The "State" of Education

Ronald Reagan said it best: "The most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you.'"

 

Residents in many rural areas are relearning Reagan's lesson. It's one of the unintended consequences of the "No Child Left Behind" law.

 

You see, the federal government now insists that every teacher must have a degree in every subject he teaches, or must pass an exam to prove he's "highly qualified" in that subject. That may make sense in Chicago or Los Angeles, where a teacher is likely to handle only one subject. For example, he'll teach chemistry, but not biology.

 

But in less populated areas, teachers must be able to handle several subjects at a time. There's even a college major known as "broad field science" that trains teachers to serve as one-person science departments.

 

Eric Jolma, a teacher in Winnett, Mont., knows what it's like to be a one-man "department." According to The New York Times, he's been teaching six science courses for the last nine years. It's a lot of ground to cover, but the town's high school has only 33 students, so he's able to give each student plenty of individual attention.

 

Jolma says he can't afford to return to school to get certified in every field he teaches. And why should he have to? Montana considers him qualified. The parents of Winnett consider him qualified. Shouldn't that be good enough?

 

Washington's one-size-fits-all education policy is the real problem here. Federal bureaucrats are treating small towns in Montana is if they were New York City and rural villages in Alaska as if they were Dallas.

 

All this wouldn't be so bad if the Bush administration was willing to be flexible. But so far, state officials say the White House has been adamant in refusing to grant waivers. That means Jolma, and thousands like him, may be forced to relocate to larger towns or leave teaching altogether. But we won't improve education by forcing dedicated teachers to quit.

 

Another troubling aspect of No Child Left Behind is its provision requiring school districts to let students from failing schools transfer to another school, at school district expense. Again, this may be a wonderful idea in large areas with plenty of schools, but it's a potential disaster in rural states.

 

That's why, back in May, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, took Education Secretary Rod Paige on a tour of her state. She wanted him to see that there are places where schools are simply too isolated to offer school choice.

 

To his credit, Paige agreed to give Alaska's rural schools some flexibility. "Teachers and administrators now know what is expected of them going into next school year," Murkowski said.

 

But should the education secretary really have to jet around the country in order to determine whether an area qualifies for a waiver from an inflexible federal requirement? Of course not. Meanwhile, at least one other state, Maine, has requested a waiver and been turned down.

 

Most people outside of Washington know that when Uncle Sam steps in to solve one problem, he usually only ends up creating two more. As Chris King, a former school board member in Winnett told the Times, "We're not leaving children behind, so why don't they just leave us alone?"

 

The problem is, we've got the federal government trying to fix problems that are best left to the states. Schools and teachers should be accountable, but they should be accountable to those who know them best: Local school boards, state certification panels -- and parents. Not federal bureaucrats.

 

Ed Feulner is the president of The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office