The End of Education Reform

The education "reform" about to emerge from Congress is a perfect disaster. Conservatives such as William Bennett and Chester E. Finn Jr., who initially supported and in many ways shaped the administration’s position on education, now argue that the proposals have been so badly distorted and diluted by Congress that the administration should insist on improvement.

That sensible advice, alas, comes too late, since the administration signaled weeks ago that it would sign absolutely any education bill. While a handful of Republican legislators continue to argue for an education tax credit that would redeem an otherwise abominable bill, the White House has shown no interest in that proposal. The chance for meaningful federal education reform has come and gone, not to return for another decade or so. All that can be done now is to learn how to prevent similar policy wrecks in the future.

The original Bush agenda for education reform rested on school choice, in the form of a $1,500 voucher for parents of children trapped in failing schools; increased flexibility for states and local school districts, through the consolidation of a panoply of highly specific federal programs into a few block grants; and "accountability," through national and state tests. From these building blocks, one can fashion a sensible reform strategy. The key is allowing federal dollars, whether through vouchers or tax credits, to bypass what Bennett as secretary of education famously termed the "blob"—the cartel of education bureaucrats and officials (at all levels of government) that impedes any serious reform effort. Give the blob sufficient flexibility to demonstrate its incompetence; administer tests to prove the point; and, at the end of the day, let parents remove their children from failed school systems.

This strategy depends on the ability of children to exit failed schools. Unfortunately, before Congress had even begun to debate education reform, the White House surrendered the choice provisions—as if they were just some bauble to curry favor with the religious right and a handful of libertarians, rather than the only means of introducing a measure of accountability to public education.

Instead of pulling their support then and there, conservative advocates and legislators patiently participated in earnest discussions over national tests and block grants. These nostrums—the "centrist" favorites of senator Joseph Lieberman and the Progressive Policy Institute—mistakenly assume that one can improve public education by making schools accountable to the national government, rather than to consumers. But "accountability" without the threat of exit is a mirage. The demise of private choice thus marked the transition from serious, if piecemeal, education reform into Ted Kennedy’s feel-good fantasy land.

Testing requirements hold promise for improving school performance if failing schools face the threat of losing customers (and money). Remove that threat, and the tests will have the opposite effect. Far from empowering parents, the mandatory disclosure of test results will provide administrators with useful new talking points—for instance, they can blame poor results on a "lack of federal funding." No parent can credibly contest that explanation. Without the lure of a partial voucher to exit the system, parents will instead have every incentive to join their local school administrators in demanding more spending. School districts thus have an incentive to perform just a shade above "failing" (a designation that might trigger monetary sanctions, however modest); doing any better would mean a missed opportunity to plead for still more federal support.

Similar perverse results will flow from the block grants—the attempt to replace federal micro-management with state and local flexibility while still holding those agencies accountable for "results." What control Congress cedes in the name of flexibility, it will take back in the name of accountability. Federal grant restrictions, after all, exist not because congressmen believe that the federales are terrific managers. No, the point is to ensure that the funds reach the intended interest groups—mandates for teacher hiring (for the benefit of the NEA), school construction grants (for construction unions), remedial and tutoring programs (for social service workers), and so on. Block grants will not bypass these constituencies. Indeed, the administration’s vow to sign whatever education "reform" Congress might produce has enabled the education cartel to recapture a big portion of the added funds in this very round of legislation; the pending bills contain a raft of highly specific, constituency-serving provisions. Even tutoring and transportation services for children in failed schools, the sorry remains of the original choice proposals, will be provided chiefly by the Democrats’ education-consultant clientele. The remaining block-granted funds, the blob will re-categorize and claw back in years to come.

Two years hence, in the face of yet another failed education reform, the debate over "flexibility" and "accountability" will start anew, but at a higher level of aggregate spending. The blob will again parade its wretched underage hostages in front of the television cameras. Having deprived them of even a modest means of escape, we will—do what? Defund the schools that failed them? Not likely. We will instead cut the education cartel another big check. Reward-for-failure has been the ineluctable logic and effect of every school "reform" effort over the past three decades.

Some Republican strategists insist that education "reform," no matter how flawed, is essential to maintaining the GOP’s viability among suburban voters. Since the choice option is unpopular with liberals and moderates in Congress, the White House had to throw it overboard, get the education issue out of the way, and move on to truly important things. But that is pure spin. If education legislation was meant to be no more than a sop to soccer moms, a dozen Clintonesque micro-grants for phonics education, "civic values" teaching, school uniforms, and demonstration projects here and there, announced with great fanfare and soothing talk over a two-year period, would have been cheaper and more effective. Unlike the law about to be enacted, such a program would not have signaled the GOP’s endorsement of Ted Kennedy’s education agenda.

In fact, education was George W. Bush’s calling card, not an inconvenient hurdle to get past. That being so, the administration should have fought for the choice plank. If Kennedy, Jeffords & Co. squawk over the pettiness of a $1,500 scholarship grant, double the money. If they squawk over "destroying public education," double the money again. Keep doing so until the voters pay attention and the blob cries uncle. We will end up spending the money in any event—why not spend it on students instead of teachers’ unions?

The administration’s mishandling of the education bill raises the disturbing prospect of repeat performances on any poll-tested issue, from Social Security to health care, where serious, worthwhile components of reform threaten the Democratic party’s clientele and infrastructure. The Left will paint those components, like school choice, as insurmountable obstacles to "bipartisanship." An administration tempted by that siren song may surrender precisely the handful of reforms that should be non-negotiable.

Conservatives were understandably reluctant to trigger a public spat over education with a newly installed administration that had shown them a fair measure of good will. In retrospect, however, their failure to offer reasoned criticism and to insist on choice when their voice might still have made a difference was a mistake. That is the true lesson of education reform.

Michael S. Greve is the John G. Searle Scholar at AEI and the director of its Federalism Project.

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