March 7, 2007

March 7, 2007 | Commentary on Education

The More Local Education Gets, The Better Off It Is

The president's budget calls for a $1 billion hike in spending on No Child Left Behind, his signature education initiative.

The big question now: Has he upped the ante enough to entice the Democratic Congress into reauthorizing the program?

Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., has long complained about the alleged under-funding of No Child. Now that he is chairman of the Senate Education Committee, he has repeatedly signaled to the White House: Make NCLB funding worth my while.

But the hefty hike that Mr. Kennedy desires would only further disenchant conservative critics. Federal funding for K-12 education has already increased more than 33 percent under this administration's watch. Moreover, those elements of the original NCLB proposal that initially attracted conservatives are long gone, buried or at risk of being misapplied.

The president's original proposal was based on principles that ought to be the hallmarks of education in a free society:

  • Public schools should be accountable to parents and taxpayers.
  • Parents should have the freedom to choose better options when public schools fail their children.
  • Americans should have greater ownership of education.

Regrettably, these principles have been compromised.

No Child Left Behind has made it clearer than ever that too many public schools are not doing well enough by their students - and exposing that fact tempts further Washington intervention. But it's also clear that neither No Child nor any other federal program is going to fix the problem. The federal government has vowed to narrow the student achievement gap for more than 40 years. Hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars later, there is virtually no sign of progress.

It's time for federal policymakers to admit they cannot fix public education. Even with the ramp-up in federal spending, Washington accounts for only 8 percent of the funds spent on local education. Congress is but a small, minority shareholder in the public education system, and it ought to start acting the part.

There's a proposal before Congress to do just that. Sens. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, have outlined a plan that would let states assume education policymaking authority. The bill would emphasize transparency about results but give states flexibility about how best to improve.

As Pennsylvania's secretary of education, I supported a similar idea in the late 1990s. I understood that the real substance of education - issues like teacher quality, curriculum, remediation strategies and testing tools - hinges on decisions made at the state, local and even individual school level. That requires strong leadership at each level, and the regrettable reality is that such leadership is all too often discouraged by top-down policies.

Education is essential to self-government. In the reauthorization debate ahead, reform proposals should be measured by how far they go to make education more the people's business and less the government's business.

Eugene Hickok is a Bradley fellow in education at The Heritage Foundation and senior policy director at Dutko Worldwide. He was deputy secretary of education during President Bush's first term.

About the Author

Eugene Hickok Bradley Fellow in Education Policy
Domestic Policy Studies

Related Issues: Education

First appeared in The Dallas Morning News