We need a new vision for a 21st century education--one where
we aren't just supporting existing schools, but spurring
innovation; where we're not just investing more money, but
demanding more reform; where parents take responsibility for their
children's success; where our schools and government are
accountable for results; where we're recruiting, retaining, and
rewarding an army of new teachers, and students are excited to
learn because they're attending schools of the future; and where we
expect all our children not only to graduate high school, but to
graduate college and get a good paying job.
--Barack Obama, Dayton, Ohio,
September 9, 2008
We cannot be satisfied until every child in America--I mean
every child--has the same chance for a good education that we want
for our own children.
--Barack Obama, Flint, Michigan, June
President-elect Obama, your comments during the campaign show
that you recognize the urgent need to transform and improve
American education for the 21st century. American students' reading
scores have remained relatively flat since 1970. In 2007, 33 percent
of fourth graders and 26 percent of eighth graders scored "below
basic" in reading. Millions of children are not receiving a
quality education in American schools. In many of the nation's
largest cities, less than half of all children are graduating high
school. Nationally, on both test scores and
graduation rates, an achievement gap still separates disadvantaged
and ethnic minority children from their affluent and non-minority
The pervasive failure in American education imposes personal and
societal costs. Children who do not receive a quality education are
less able to lead happy and productive lives and realize their
potential. As a nation, this poor performance imposes costs on our
society and even threatens our future economic prosperity and
Moreover, the crisis in American education persists despite
decades of increasing federal intervention and taxpayer funding.
Since 1985, combined federal spending on K-12 education has
increased by 138 percent (adjusted for inflation). Nationally, American
taxpayers spend roughly $9,300 annually on each child enrolled in
public school--double what was spent in 1970 after adjusting for
Regrettably, the federal government's current system for funding
and regulating elementary and secondary education is not designed
to spur the transformation that is needed to improve American
schools. The Department of Education's budgets include dozens of
ineffective or unnecessary programs. Major federal initiatives like
No Child Left Behind (NCLB)--similar to previous versions of the
Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)--have demonstrated
the limits and potential dangers that are inherent in the
overextension of federal policymaking authority.
In other areas, federal programs have failed to accomplish their
intended policy goals. For postsecondary education, years of
ever-increasing federal subsidies for higher education have failed
to make college more affordable, since colleges continue to
increase costs. In early childhood education, federal programs in
operation since the 1960s such as Head Start have failed to deliver
lasting benefits for participating low-income children.
Many in Congress are now proposing that the federal government
intervene to address a range of problems in education by creating
new programs and federal subsidies, including public school
infrastructure and construction, funding for runaway college
tuition costs, and the costs of early childhood education. Rather
than repeating the mistakes of the past, you can exercise
leadership and deliver on your campaign promises by embracing a new
approach for federal policy to improve American education.
Any new efforts should recognize the limits of federal
intervention and empower those who are able to make a difference in
children's education, especially parents. Specifically, your
Administration should pursue the following actions:
- Reform federal K-12 education programs to encourage
state and local reform and facilitate greater parental
choice. Major federal education programs like No Child
Left Behind should be reformed to give states greater autonomy to
end ineffective programs and reallocate resources for state
priorities while maintaining academic accountability and
transparency. After seven years, experience has shown
that NCLB, like previous versions of ESEA, has failed to spur
meaningful improvement. Instead, NCLB has increased the
administrative burden on states and localities and created perverse
incentives for states to weaken academic standards.
NCLB should be reformed to give states the opportunity to opt out
of federal regulations and receive funding in a block grant if
certain requirements, including maintaining academic transparency
through state-level testing and public reporting, are met. This
approach would allow state policymakers--with greater input from
parents and other stakeholders--to take responsibility for
strengthening public education in local communities. This
flexibility would also offer states that are facing a difficult
fiscal climate greater freedom to prioritize funding
In addition, federal education programs should be reformed to
permit greater parental choice. For example, the Title I
program--which provides funding to schools that serve high-poverty
students--should be reformed to allow states to let federal dollars
follow participating students to a school of their parents'
choice. Likewise, the Individuals with
Disabilities Education Act should be amended to give states the
flexibility to use federal funding to offer parents of students
with special needs the opportunity to attend a school of
- End ineffective, wasteful, or duplicative education
programs. The Department of Education's budget includes
many programs that are ineffective, unnecessary, or duplicative.
For example, the federal government's Program Assessment Rating
Tool process identified 47 programs for elimination.
The projected budget savings from terminating these programs was
approximately $3.3 billion. Moreover, the Office of
Management and Budget reports that the 2008 Department of Education
budget included 758 congressional earmarks totaling $327 million in
appropriations. Earmarks and other ineffective, wasteful,
or duplicative education programs should be terminated.
- Protect and expand school choice in Washington,
D.C. The federal government provides considerable funding
assistance to the D.C. government, which has long had one of the
most troubled public school systems in the country.
The District spends $14,400 annually on each child in public
school, but test scores show that children in the nation's capital
are far behind their peers elsewhere around the country. In
addition, D.C. public schools are often violent and dangerous
places for children who are trying to learn.
In 2004, Congress created the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program
to give low-income children in the District the opportunity to
attend a school of their parents' choice. That program, which had
bipartisan support in Congress and the backing of then-D.C. Mayor
Anthony Williams, is currently helping 1,900 disadvantaged children
attend private schools in the District. Surveys have shown that
participating parents are more satisfied with their children's
education, and a testing evaluation has reported that participating
students scored higher than children who remained in public
The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program should be maintained and
expanded to give all children in the District the opportunity to
attend a safe and effective school of their parents' choice.
- Fix ineffective federal early childhood education
programs rather than adding new ones. Since 1965, the
federal government has sought to improve school readiness for
disadvantaged children through the Head Start program. In all,
taxpayers have spent nearly $100 billion on this program. For 2008,
Congress appropriated $6.9 billion for Head Start. The total annual
cost per student served was approximately $7,500.
But more than 40 years after Head Start was created, the school
readiness gap between low-income children and their peers remains.
Taxpayers' considerable investment in the Head Start program has
failed to demonstrate meaningful long-term results for
participating children. Moreover, Head Start has been plagued with
internal problems, including financial mismanagement.
Despite the failure of Head Start, many lawmakers on Capitol Hill
are proposing the creation of new federal early childhood programs,
including plans that would provide access to middle-income and
upper-income children. Rather than creating new federal programs,
policymakers should reform Head Start by giving state policymakers
greater flexibility to integrate Head Start into state early
childhood education programs and develop new strategies to improve
education and care for young children. In addition, Head Start
should be reformed to allow states to give families the ability to
select an early childhood provider of choice.
- Call attention to the real engines of reform: the power
of parents and successful reform models at the state and local
levels. After years of federal intervention in education
that has failed to yield meaningful improvement, the President has
an opportunity to use the bully pulpit to encourage a greater
commitment to education and support state and local reform lessons.
The historic nature of the 2008 election will give you a unique
opportunity to communicate to the American people.
First, your family can serve as a model for parental
engagement in children's education. Your own example as a husband
and father committed to his marriage and involved in his children's
lives sends a powerful message, as does your weighing their
individual education needs in the selection of their school. You
have the opportunity to challenge American parents to become more
involved in their children's education.
Academic literature suggests that family stability and parental
involvement in a child's schooling are correlated with a student's
academic achievement. Since the most direct way to increase
parental involvement in education is to give parents the ability to
choose their children's school, your voice could join a growing
number of leaders from the Democratic Party by declaring support
for school choice and parental control in education.
Second, you can highlight and applaud pioneering reform
efforts at the state and local levels and declare opposition to
special-interest groups that resist systemic reform of the current
public education system. The path to transforming and improving
American education is at the state, local, and school levels with
the leadership of state lawmakers, principals, teachers, and
parents. It is important for the President to recognize the limits
of federal intervention and use the bully pulpit to support
systemic reform efforts.
You were right to say during your campaign that "we cannot be
satisfied until every child in America...has the same chance for a
good education that we want for our own children." But four decades
of experience with increasing federal involvement has shown that
Washington cannot deliver on that promise. Instead of further
expanding federal authority in education, your Administration
should empower those who have more power to make a difference in
children's education, especially parents.
Dan Lips is Senior
Policy Analyst in Education in the Domestic Policy Studies
Department, and Jennifer A. Marshall
is Director of Domestic Policy Studies and Director of the Richard
and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, at The