- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 10, 2008

Twenty-five years ago, the National Commission on Excellence in Education released the landmark “A Nation at Risk” report. It documented widespread failure in American schools.

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre education performance that exists today,” the commission warned, “we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

Many people would expect the president to react to such alarming news by proposing a major government initiative to combat the problem. Not President Reagan: “I believe that parents, not government, have the primary responsibility for the education of their children. Our agenda is to restore quality to education by increasing competition and by strengthening parental choice and local control.”

The report gave detailed recommendations for improving America’s schools. But Reagan didn’t view himself as a national school superintendent — and he was suspicious of the federal government’s role in this quintessential local issue.

So instead of using the power of regulation to mandate the “Nation at Risk” reform recommendations, Reagan mounted the bully pulpit. He called on governors, state leaders and the public to demand excellence from the nation’s schools. He encouraged schools and communities to set high standards and focus more on the basics. And he called on Congress and state leaders to implement parental choice.

Unfortunately, Reagan was unable to leave this lasting imprint on federal education policy. Lawmakers ignored his calls for tuition tax credits and school vouchers. And instead of limiting federal power in education, in the last 25 years Washington has asserted more power over education, culminating in the “No Child Left Behind” law. The federal government now regulates policies once governed by state and local authorities, including testing, teacher-hiring and instruction.

Spending from all levels of government has soared. Today, the average student in American public schools can expect more than $9,200 to be spent on his or her behalf this year by taxpayers — a real increase of 69 percent over 1980 per-pupil spending.

Yet this additional spending hasn’t meaningfully changed student outcomes. Many of the same problems highlighted by “A Nation at Risk” remain today: 1 in 3 fourth-graders scores “below basic” in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Among low-income students, only half passed the reading test.

A recent study found more than 1 million children drop out of school each year. In some of our biggest cities, less than half of all students earn a high-school diploma. In Detroit, for example, only 1 in 4 students graduate.

The ongoing failure to address the crisis in public education suggests Reagan might have been on to something when he offered his solutions back in the 1980s.

First, it has become painfully clear that the federal government can’t solve the problems in America’s public schools. Since the “Great Society” era, Congress and subsequent administrations have tried unsuccessfully to improve America’s schools, specifically focusing on improving opportunities for disadvantaged children. But years of federal intervention have failed to produce meaningful improvement.

Second, state and local authorities are in a better position to improve schools. The most promising reforms since 1983 have occurred at the state level. The standards and accountability movement — launched by the original “Nation at Risk” report — has been led by the states. State innovation has been the catalyst for promising education reform ideas like charter schools and teacher merit pay.

Third, parents need more say in their child’s education. Giving parents more ways to choose the school their child attends helps match individual students and provides important feedback for schools. Since the 1980s, a growing number of states and cities have created programs — vouchers, education tax credits, charter schools — that give parents the power to choose their children’s school. School-choice programs have improved parents’ satisfaction, boost test scores and foster public-school improvement through competition.

It’s tempting for politicians to take bad news about our public schools as an opportunity to offer another “bold” proposal to increase federal spending and regulation. But if they really want to be bold, they should recognize the limits of federal intervention and embrace reforms that would restore power to state-leaders and parents.

We can’t allow another 25 years to pass without real progress improving public education in America.

Dan Lips is an education analyst at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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