This commentary was originally featured in The Hill on May 25, 2017.
The federal government has expanded its power in almost every policy area, but in no issue has that overreach been more damaging than in education. After four decades of profligate spending and onerous regulations, the great achievement of the U.S. Department of Education has been in sustaining the mediocrity of the status quo.
Earlier this week, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rightly identified the problem—the centralization of education policy decision-making in Washington. Though DeVos’ speech was short on specifics, she nonetheless provided some principles for reform that bode well for the nation’s 60 million schoolchildren.
First, the president and Congress must begin a steady devolvement of power from DC to the states, where most policy-making power—especially on education—resides.
Second, the secretary rightly identified the need to erode the entrenchment of the “education-industrial complex.” Those include teachers’ unions, superintendents’ associations, and testing companies that block any innovation within the system. The most promising innovation—true, parental choice, regardless of income and zip code—will no doubt be a cornerstone of DeVos’ reforms.
To unify proponents of parental choice, however, the administration must be careful to avoid using the very hammer—federal overreach—that is the root of the problem. As DeVos said, “We should have zero interest in substituting the current big government approach for our own big government approach.”
In practical terms, that means that states should drive education choice. DeVos’ articulation of a reinvigorated federalism is sorely needed in a department whose constitutional merits are questionable at best. Consequently, the administration is correct that we must simultaneously downsize the Department of Education while also nurturing a policy climate in which state take the lead in policy innovation.
Given the maturity of the parental choice movement—more than 30 states have enacted some type of educational choice program—fostering such a role would likely spur a bevy of choices and opportunities for America’s schoolchildren.
The good news is that the administration can thread the proverbial needle by taking action in three school systems which the federal government oversees: the federal district of Washington, D.C., which has approximately 90,000 students in public schools, public charters, and private schools; Bureau of Indian Affairs schools (48,000 students in 183 schools across the country); and students of U.S. military personnel (approximately 200,000 students). Offering these families the most modern form of parental choice—an education savings account—would give them educational opportunities that transcend the one-size-fits-all model of the current public school system.
So doing would also have an important political effect—an important consideration, considering how much educrats have politicized education. Though students in D.C., Indian Affairs schools, and of military personnel represent a small percentage of students nationwide, the administration could deploy its bully pulpit to highlight the effects of true educational choice. In states where parental choice has languished because of petty politics and entrenched interests—most recently, and surprisingly, Texas—this proper, federal action would be a boon.
There are, however, risks. The “education-industrial complex” is well-funded, well-organized, and hyperbolic. Secretary DeVos must be prepared for all manner of criticisms that the world will end because of expanded parental choice. But she should be buoyed by the preponderance of evidence showing that choice works. And most importantly, she should be buoyed by knowing it is the morally right thing to do for all children, especially those languishing in what she rightly calls “an antiquated system.”
But an equally important risk is within the choice movement itself. If the administration overreaches, implementing a top-down policy—such as a federal ESA or a tax-credit scholarship with the typical strings attached—it will not only have overstepped its authority, perpetuating the big government approach that created this problem in the first place. It will have also undermined the excellent, state-level work that has been going on for decades, and that marches on steadily, one state, one student at a time. That work has already borne fruit, so the administration must be careful to tend—and not over-fertilize—the orchard of innovation.
In sum, education reformers are rightly excited about the prospects for proper federal action in education policy. If the administration follows the precepts of Secretary DeVos’ address—and can find a sufficient number of allies in Congress who put children ahead of the system—the Department of Education may finally have found its proper role.