Experts Envision New Federal Role Advancing Equity and Choice in Education

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Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst Brookings Institution
Janice B. Riddell  (203) 912-8675 External Relations, Education Next

Experts Envision New Federal Role Advancing Equity and Choice in Education

NCLB reauthorization offers possibility for federal redirection, if it focuses on providing parents more accurate information and greater choice rather than requiring top-down compliance

CAMBRIDGE, MA – The Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education (KTF) proposes that No Child Left Behind (NCLB), when reauthorized, provide parents with more accurate information and expand their opportunities to choose schools for their children.  Task force member and author, Grover J. Whitehurst, observes, “The federal government has a legitimate role in overseeing the marketplace for schooling.  A new system that is based on expanding parents’ ability to choose schools that are a good match for their children and is explicitly designed to ‘avoid students being sorted by race, economic background, and other conditions’ is in the interest of individual students and their families, and of our society.”  The abridged version of the report, “Let the Dollars Follow the Child:  How the federal government can achieve equity,” is available at and will appear in the Spring, 2012, issue of Education Next.

“Washington is at a crossroads on K-12 education policy,” observes the KTF.  Policymakers can either continue on the path of top-down regulation and accountability that has characterized the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era;  devolve federal power to the states, which would in practice return to the laissez-faire model of the mid-1990s;  or “rethink the fundamentals.”

Two principles “have served the nation exceedingly well throughout its history:  federalism and choice.”  The report holds that “government services are most efficiently delivered if provided closest to the taxpayers or consumers receiving them.”  Equally important is well-informed choice, a powerful principle in our economy and in higher education, but one that is severely constrained in K-12 public education, particularly for low-income populations that are most likely to be assigned to low-performing schools under the nation’s residence-based school system.  The lack of geographic mobility for large segments of the population relieves low-performing school districts from the competitive pressure that research has shown to be a potent motivator for school district improvement. The lack of accurate information on school quality hinders the identification of better schools.

Under current federal policy, funding for the extra costs associated with low-income and high-need students is provided to districts and states chiefly through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  The KTF proposes to replace the complicated federal guidelines under which funds are currently disbursed with “backpack funding,” weighted funding that follows students as individuals.  Backpack funding, writes Whitehurst, “has been shown to direct proportionally more funds to schools that serve needy students than traditional distribution schemes.”

Backpack funding is the core mechanism by which parental choice in education will be unleashed under the plan.  When funding follows individual students, it will “create real competition for students and the public funding that accompanies them among the providers of K-12 education services.”  As a condition of the receipt of federal funds to support the education of individual students, schools should be required to participate in an open enrollment process conducted by a state-sanctioned authority.  The task force calls for “unified open-enrollment systems” that encompass as many choices as possible from the regular public charter, private, and virtual (online) school universes.”  Well-functioning school choice requires a federal role in gathering and disseminating high-quality data on school performance; ensures that civil rights laws are enforced; distributes funds based on enrollment of high-need students in particular schools; and supports a growing supply of school options through an expanded, equitably funded charter sector and through the unfettered growth of digital learning via application of the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause.

The proposal to reauthorize ESEA, IDEA, and Head Start to conform to these recommendations will appeal more to some states than to others.  Whitehurst suggests pilot-testing the proposal by allowing states to opt out of the statutory and regulatory requirements of these programs in exchange for creating a marketplace of informed choice and competition.  If it turns out that the electorates in these pioneering states find success with the Koret approach – moving decision-making closer to the consumers of K-12 public education and empowering more parents to choose schools – other states would “find the risk of coming onboard manageable and…face escalating demand from their citizens.”

The full report of the Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education is available at

About the Author

Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst is a member of the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.

About Education Next

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to looking at hard facts about school reform.  Other sponsoring institutions are the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

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