Less Fed, More Ed: Let States Make Schools Really Accountable

ALL BUT UNNOTICED THIS SUMMER, the Obama administration busily advanced its plan to implement national education standards and tests. The administration’s national standards agenda is an overreach made possible by a $100 billion “bonus” given to the federal Department of Education in last year’s “stimulus” bill.

The infusion of taxpayer money effectively doubled the agency’s budget, an exclamation point added to decades of increased funding. Combined federal, state, and local education spending exceeds $10,000 a year per student—yet academic achievement has stagnated and graduation rates have flatlined.

Now, with tens of billions more at its disposal, the Obama administration seeks to impose “reforms” through the Department of Education without the consideration of the American people or the consent of Congress.

The federal educrats have already developed national standards but are pondering how to implement them and assess results. State education officials must overhaul or junk existing standards and tests developed at taxpayers’ expense with input from local leaders.

Many states agreed to adopt the national standards as a result of Race to the Top, the administration’s $4.35 billion program of competitive grants. Indeed, heeding White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s advice to “never let a serious crisis go to waste,” the educrats dangled grants in front of cashstarved states to get them to sign on.

To lure holdout states, the administration has an ace up its sleeve: $14.5 billion in Title I funds set to be distributed among low-income school districts. The Department of Education proposes to make receipt of those funds contingent upon state adoption of its national standards. All this has produced little visible change … yet. But what can parents expect on back-to-school day in two or three years if national standards become a reality?

That all children will be held to the same high standards no matter where they live? That they’ll be able to compete with peers in Japan and Switzerland? That local schools will be more accountable for results?

Probably not.

National standards aren’t likely to produce a high bar of excellence for all students. True, many states need to push their standards higher. But that’s why the pull of states with very good standards—notably California, Indiana, Massachusetts, and Virginia—is so important.

That upward pull will fade as national standards and tests fall prey to the same political pressures that led to the dumbing down of state standards. Those pressures include demands from teachers unions and other interest groups and a federal bureaucracy that funds schools instead of individual children’s education at a school of their choice.

As for making America more competitive, the evidence doesn’t show a correlation between national standards and student achievement. In fact, many countries have seen gains in recent years after decentralizing education. In Alberta, Canada, for example, parents can choose from a variety of educational options, including public schools, private schools, charter schools, homeschooling, and schools that teach in French. The results of this system of choice have been very positive for the students. Alberta’s students ranked second in the world in science on the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment. They also ranked third in reading and fifth in math.

Finally, national standards won’t make schools more accountable to parents and taxpayers. A serious “show and tell” would reveal that standards serve Washington bean-counters, who are more interested in aggregated data on students than the enlightenment of an individual girl or boy.

Real reforms empower parents, not federal mediocrity. So here’s a better approach:

● Strengthen state-based accountability. Instead of signing on to common standards, state education leaders should follow the example of Massachusetts or Virginia in creating solid standards and assessments. As students become proficient, officials should raise the bar and challenge them to meet the demands of college coursework and competitive careers.

● Detail school performance. States should publish the scores required to pass specific tests and clearly define what it means for a student to be considered proficient. Otherwise, determining performance is like looking at a map without a scale to figure out the distance from starting point to destination.

● Allow parents to act. This is the crucial next step toward accountability and better results. Parents in Florida, for instance, have access to details on performance (including a grade from A to F for each school). Most importantly, they are free to choose where to enroll their kids based on that information.

No parent or taxpayer mindful of the next generation’s promise should accept a bigger brick wall erected by an unaccountable bureaucracy imposing one-size-fits-all standards. Decades of ever-mounting federal spending and control have yet to push up test scores and graduation rates. Instead, we have had failure and mediocrity. If the proof is in the pudding, how much pudding do we need?

Ms. Burke is an education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation. A version of this article was first published by the Washington Times.