September
25th 2012
Is This Conservative Alternative to Federal Education Policy Just Too Sensible?

Posted under Education Politics & Federal Government & Innovation and Reform & Parents & PPC & Research & School Choice & School Finance

Four months ago, while introducing you to the education policy blueprint of a major party presidential candidate, I noted that one of the hardest areas in which “it might be hard to make a contrast” between Obama and Romney is K-12 education.

Every time one of these major national elections comes up, serious questions and debates take place about the federal government’s role — like the seven-part video series on Choice Media TV with Joe Williams and Jay Greene. In the last installment, the question comes up about the deep potential and widespread problems with fraud and abuse in the federal Title I program for low-income students.

Greene responds with the vital idea of attaching the Title I dollars directly to needy students rather than filtering them through wasteful bureaucracies — a great idea touted here before. But beyond that kind of choice, mobility and empowerment, what other reform ideas could be part of a conservative agenda for the federal role in education?

Let’s first get it off the table that shutting down the U.S. Department of Education is not a viable — nor is it the optimal — solution. A great new National Affairs article to digest from Rick Hess and Andrew Kelly not only highlights the incoherence of past conservative agendas in this area but also offers up a vision for a limited, focused and effective reform role for the Department. Their proposals, worth reading in full to consider, fall under two headings:

  1. Transparency and Research: to help experts better measure and consumers better judge what is working and what is not working in schools within and across state lines
  2. Trust-Busting: making thoughtful uses of deregulation and market solutions (beyond expanded parental choice, which we also love) to expose stifled institutions and structures to healthy competition

Interestingly, one example under their second heading is the suggestion that “the federal government can help by adopting a trust-busting approach that would enable reform-minded state leaders to pursue alternatives to the current [teacher] certification regime.” Hess and Kelly cite the work of ABCTE, a groundbreaking effort to get more mid-career math and science experts into classrooms that has been overlooked by too many states.

Why bring up the licensure issue? Because, as Ed News Colorado reports today, the issue could be a live one in the state legislature next year. The impetus is the focus on measuring teacher effectiveness through 2010′s Senate Bill 191 and the recent release of The New Teacher Project’s report Making Licensure Matter.

The report seeks to advance the idea of tying licensure to a teacher’s effectiveness rating. At the same time, some conservative leaders on the State Board of Education have seriously and sensibly asked “Why do we have to have licensure in the first place?” On the other end of the spectrum, the Colorado Education Association through its lobbyist said the union “doesn’t support tying license renewal to evaluations.” So we could have an interesting legislative dynamic on the licensure issue next year, but I digress….

While I might quibble with a point or two of the Hess and Kelly vision for federal education policy, it’s hard to see how enacting it would be anything but a net benefit for students and taxpayers through effective innovation and shedding of bloated programs. It definitely would mark an improvement over the recent attempts of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, with their mixed (at best) records for costly sums. Or as Hess put it, the agenda “offers an overdue and crucial alternative to the well-intentioned overreaching that has characterized federal ed policy for over a decade.”

Whether in the upcoming state licensure debate or in national leaders paying heed to the conservative vision laid out for federal education policy, it’s only fair to wonder just how much attention and support the sensible ideas will get.

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