The Issue Left Behind

As the Republican party searches its soul and its ranks for policies, strategies, and leaders that can restore it to fighting strength at the national level, few expect education reform to loom large among the issues needing close attention. Yet it’s hard to get very far on such central challenges as economic growth and international competitiveness without paying close heed to the capacity of America’s workforce in the medium term​—​and to the prowess of our scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs over the long haul.

Keep this in mind, too, as any pollster will tell you: The more Republicans talk about education, the better they do with voters.

A number of GOP governors, past and present, have figured this out, among them Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, and Rick Snyder. And plenty of education reform is underway at the state and sometimes local levels.

The national party, however, appears somewhere between oblivious and brain-dead on this topic. Observe, for example, a Congress that’s many years overdue in revamping and reauthorizing such core federal education programs as No Child Left Behind and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

No, it’s not just a GOP problem. Gridlock and institutional dysfunction are at work. But Republicans face a quintet of distinctive dilemmas on the education front.

First, the Obama administration has stolen much of their former thunder. Vouchers remain a GOP preserve in Washington (though no longer in some state capitals), but charter schools, rigorous teacher evaluations, ranking schools on the basis of performance, even versions of merit pay are as apt to trip off the tongue of education secretary Arne Duncan as from the mouth of any Republican. Yes, this means the GOP has won the “war of ideas,” but at the cost of removing clear distinctions between the parties.

Second, the Tea Party and its congressional acolytes aren’t helping, with their futile calls to “abolish the Education Department” or “just let the parents decide.” Though elements of those ideas have great merit and, carefully crafted, might even prove enactable, mindless sloganeering of this sort scares educators, delights Democrats, and comes across as far too radical for most parents​—​who turn out to be a rather traditional lot when it comes to their children’s schools.

Third, it’s tricky to rein in teacher unions without demonizing the country’s three million classroom instructors, mostly earnest, caring, hardworking and not-very-well-paid members of the middle class who (like Latinos) might even vote Republican if the party didn’t appear to hate them.

Fourth, the federal budget plainly needs reining in, too, but if defense isn’t to weaken and entitlements remain untouchable, there’s nowhere to go but “discretionary domestic spending,” which includes just about all of the education action.

Finally, there is the dilemma of what to do​—​indeed how even to talk​—​about the “Common Core” academic standards for English and math that are generally superior to what states came up with on their own but are decried by some on the right as the camel’s nose of nationalization and federal control of the schools. (Obama and Duncan made this worse by wrapping themselves too tightly around the new standards, which in fact arose from the voluntary coming-together of most states.)

Despite these dilemmas, there are compelling reasons for the GOP and its leaders to engage the education issue. Herewith some suggestions:

Beat the drum of economic competitiveness and its education prerequisites. These include STEM schools (science, technology, engineering, math), gifted-and-talented programs, and other opportunities for acceleration (e.g., “early college”). Here, the Democrats have backed themselves into a corner with their obsession with “closing achievement gaps”​—​surely important but not the sum of our educational objectives, either.

Demand more bang from the education dollar. The surest way to do this, as in every other field, is by deploying technology to make the system more productive. Online and “blended” learning (school days divided between teacher-led classes and learning-via-computer) have the additional benefit of customizing instruction and fostering choice, particularly in locales where schools are small and far apart. Federal agencies other than the Education Department could even be helpful here. Imagine math-and-science MOOCs (massive open online courses) for high school students taught by scientists at the NIH, NASA, Centers for Disease Control, etc.

Insist on more school choices for more kids, including those who live in smug suburbs. But also insist that the choices be effective schools. Shut down the bad ones, whether district-operated or charter​—​and stare down everyone (both profit-hungry plutocrat and jobs-centered union heavy) who presses to keep them open despite persistent educational failure.

When it comes to federal policy, get the “tight-loose” balance right. No Child Left Behind, we now know, got it backwards, laying heavy regulation from Washington upon states, districts, and schools regarding the means of education while being almost totally laid back about the ends. The GOP should reverse this, embracing rigorous​—​and common​—​academic standards and the means of assessing (and comparing) performance across the land, but liberating schools (and states and districts) to operate as they think best.

Apply the principles of transparency and comparability to school finances, too. Today it’s impossible to find out how much money the education system spends on a given child, even a given school, much less what that money is spent on. It’s harder still to compare how those dollars flow in Springfield, Ohio, with their amounts and uses in Springfield, Ill. ​—​and Springfield, Mass., Ga., Tenn.,  etc. It’s time America had a uniform system of financial accounting for its education system.

These are more than talking points. They’re important emphases and policy directions. Some will prove more immediately popular with the electorate than others, but this is no time for hollow slogans and policy-via-focus-group. Rather, it’s time, in education as in many other spheres, for the party of Lincoln to craft a new platform for itself, one that would make the United States a better place to live for a long time to come.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This blog entry first appeared in the Weekly Standard

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