Back To School and Ready for Straight A’s!

SUMMER IS OVER, and across the nation students, parents, teachers, and principals are preparing for the new school year. With the issue of education repeatedly topping the opinion polls as a concern, politicians also are gearing up to focus on education reforms—and they will surely capitalize on the back-to-school frenzy to draw attention to their pet projects. Secretary of Education Riley plans to tour the South by bus to tout the President’s 600-page education plan, and Members of Congress plan to push different alternatives. Despite all the talk, many of the proposals put forth will have little direct impact on either students or schools.

But one congressional plan may capture the spotlight on reform and shed a new light on Washington’s hefty investment in education. Known as the “Straight A’s” Act, or Academic Achievement for All, this proposal would shift the focus of education policy from inputs to real academic outcomes. And it would zero in on ways to close the achievement gap between rich and poor students while rewarding success and punishing failure. In many ways, Senator Slade Gorton and House Education Committee Chairman Bill Goodling may have put forth a Washington-driven idea that could actually help students make the grade.

First, the problem: America’s schools are not performing well. Despite federal spending of $358 million per year to train teachers in math and science, students in 12th grade across America ranked 19th out of 21 in mathematics and dead last in advanced physics in a survey of industrialized countries. Moreover, after 34 years and despite spending $120 billion on Title I, Aid to Disadvantaged Students—the cornerstone of federal investment in K-12 education—only 13 percent of low-income 4th graders scored at or above the “proficient” level on national reading tests, compared with 40 percent of upper-income students.

Other federal programs are having similarly discouraging results. For example, although the Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities program has spent $6 billion since 1986 , according to the Administration’s drug czar, General Barry R. McCaffrey, this program simply “mails out checks.”

Fundamentally, the federal role in education is proving to be irrelevant in some states and a clear barrier to reform in states that are implementing serious reforms. For example, in Florida, six times as many state personnel are required to administer one federal dollar compared with one state dollar. But Florida cannot use one federal penny to complement state dollars that offer students trapped in failing schools alternatives. Though Pennsylvania is implementing an innovative plan to boost teacher quality, federal dollars are bypassing the state’s program to fund initiatives, such as professional development, that show little correlation with improved student outcomes.

The Administration and some Members of Congress have put forth proposals to address these concerns, but their plans are based on the same faulty one-size-fits-all premise, which will make Washington less able to meet the varying needs of the states.

Now, a remedy: Straight A’s, in many ways, resembles charter school laws at the state level. Today, 35 states and the District of Columbia have enacted charter school laws to give principals considerable fiscal and legal autonomy in their schools in exchange for agreed-upon academic improvements. If a charter school fails to adhere to the terms of its charter, it will be shut down. If it succeeds, it will likely attract more students and funding.

Straight A’s adopts the same approach. It would allow the states (or school districts) to spend their share of federal K_12 dollars on specific reforms of their choosing, in exchange for specified academic results. If a state decides to participate in Straight A’s, it would select certain formula-based K_12 programs and commingle their federal funds. It would then outline in a contract or charter agreement with Washington 1) how it plans to spend those funds, and 2) how much it hopes to increase test results and decrease achievement gaps between rich and poor students.

Next, the state would provide the U.S. Secretary of Education with baseline data on its students’ current academic achievement levels, disaggregated by socioeconomic background. The federal government would then send the state one check, provided the state agrees to produce the results it promises in the contract. If the state achieves these results, the federal government would offer a bonus. If the state fails, this flexibility with federal funds would be withdrawn.

Reform-minded superintendents of education, like Seattle’s Bill Olshefski and Chicago’s Paul Vallas, already have endorsed the Straight A’s Act. And Governors like Michigan’s John Engler, Florida’s Jeb Bush, and Virginia’s James Gilmore, whose states already lead the nation in imposing tough standards and accountability measures, also endorse Straight A’s. If Congress is serious about boosting the return on federal dollars invested in education, it should make sure the Straight A’s Act receives its full attention this fall. Otherwise, parents, teachers, principals, and yes, even American students, may want to send their elected officials back to school—but far away from Washington!

Ms. Rees is a senior education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation and is the co-author of School Choice: What’s Happening in the States.