How to Reboot K-12

Thursday, February 9, 2012
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With the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act overdue for reauthorization, the Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education recommends a new and powerful strategy for fundamental education reform—and a major makeover of the customary federal role: allow states receiving federal funding to opt out of traditional federal constraints if they create vibrant marketplaces for informed school choice.

In the report, Choice and Federalism: Defining the Federal Role in Education, we the Task Force recommend that Washington limit its education role to what it can do best: encouraging states to create level playing fields that expand school options and competition, along with access to accurate information on school performance, to generate the greatest opportunity for students and their families to make well-informed decisions about where to enroll.

 rebooting k-12 education  
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There are three choices for confronting America’s broken public education system:

—continue down a path of increased federal control and top-down accountability with regard to public education;

—devolve power to states and districts, thereby returning to the status quo of the mid-90s when local public school monopolies decided how children were to be educated and only the affluent had choice;

—or rethink the fundamentals and do something different by empowering parental choice.

Based on two guiding principles, we believe the third option is best.

Our first guiding principle is fiscal federalism. It suggests that the federal role in education should be specified strategically and grounded in the laws of economics and on empirical evidence of what actually works. The federal role therefore should be confined to what it clearly does best, while states and locales should focus on what they are best suited to do.

Choice is the second organizing principle. Expanded parental choice would promote market-based competition that can exert positive pressure on schools to improve. The recommendations described below are envisioned in a federal legislative context in which states can either elect to pursue a choice-based reform strategy or stick with a top-down federal role that is some variant of the current system. By accepting the discipline of robust competition and choice, states would be permitted to opt out of federally controlled standards and accountability and move decision-making closer to those serviced.

Together, fiscal federalism and choice dictate a three-pronged approach to a redefined federal role in education:

—shift political decisions about education to the local governmental agencies closest to the consumers of education while retaining and strengthening responsibility for activities that cannot be effectively localized because of externalities;

—support informed parental choice; and

—use incentives to promote competitive markets for education services at the local level.


The federal government should maintain responsibility for three central activities: creating and disseminating information on school performance and program effectiveness; enforcing civil rights laws; and providing financial support to high-need students. We recommend that these essential functions continue to receive strong support at the federal level, but not necessarily in the forms in which they are currently administered. The fourth activity, enhancing choice and competition among education providers, should be radically changed.

Create and Disseminate Knowledge on the Condition of Education and What Works in Education: Without research, data gathering, and dissemination of information, parents, teachers, school managers, and policymakers have little more than intuition and consensus as the basis for making decisions. To support informed choice, the federal government should fund research and use its expertise in gathering and providing information on key school quality indicators, one of which should be achievement.

The federal government needs to redefine its role in K-12 education.

Enforce Civil Rights: When state and local actions in education are discriminatory, the federal government should step in to enforce civil rights laws. Acts of unjust discrimination, such as those that deny a student an educational experience based solely on race, gender, disability, or another protected status, are costly to society. The federal government, and not merely state and local governments, has an obligation to curb discrimination.

Provide Strategic Compensatory Funding. Regardless of whether the underlying cause is disability, lack of English proficiency, or poverty, high-need students are more expensive to educate than other students. Failure to provide additional resources for special-need students may create an incentive for other students to change schools, if they are able. The burden created by special-need students is thus disproportionately borne by those too immobile to avoid it—most likely other high-need, low-income students. 

The federal government can counteract these inequities through cash transfers, which, instead of flowing directly to school districts, should follow the student. Commonly called “backpack funding,” weighted funding attached to the student has been shown to direct proportionally more funds to schools that serve needy students than traditional distribution schemes. With this approach, individual schools receive federal funds based on student counts, with a weighting formula to adjust for factors such as the increased expense of educating high-need students and for regional differences in costs. Thus, a school with a relatively greater number of special-needs students would be assured funding adequate to serve this special population.

Promote Competition Among Education Providers. The sections below on Choice and Competition summarize a new federal focus on stimulating the creation of a vibrant local educational marketplace. Many of the initiatives stem from the federal role of disseminating knowledge and information to improve parental educational decision-making. However the Task Force recommends an entirely new and potentially powerful mechanism to create incentives for local reform: allowing states to opt out of most of the present and anticipated federal initiatives in education in exchange for creating vibrant marketplaces for informed school choice.

Key Changes in Federal Role Under Fiscal Federalism: Were the federal government to focus exclusively on serving the functions identified above, many existing programs would fall by the wayside. Programs such as Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and the Investing in Innovation Fund, which involve federal regulation of the content and mode of delivery of education or the organization and staffing of schools would be discontinued. These programs all tackle issues better addressed at the local level under fiscal federalism. Head Start would be funded along the lines of federally subsidized child-care expenses: via a tax credit to low-income parents.

The federal role in knowledge creation would end at promoting sound impartial evaluations of curricula and funding research and development of innovative instructional materials, rather than extend to engaging in curriculum development at the National Science Foundation. Finally, federal teacher-quality requirements would be abolished. In a highly competitive model in which teacher quality is a dominant factor in achieving high performance, the federal government has no role in setting standards. The marketplace sets the standard.


Market-based competition cannot exist unless the consumers of public education can choose where to be schooled. The federal role should be redefined to support choice.

Default school assignments by district should be discontinued.

Promote Enhanced Open Enrollment with Effective Choice Architecture. Receipt of federal funds should be contingent on a robust open enrollment process that is administered to optimize the match between parental preferences for schools and schools’ preferences for students. Unified student admission systems should provide students and their parents with the opportunity to compare schools and complete enrollment applications for any accredited school that accepts students supported with student-based funding.

We recommend that the states establish or oversee internet choice portals that provide clear and relevant information on school performance, including standardized tests and revealed popularity. Web-based choice portals should also coordinate parent and student choice of school through processes that optimize the match between parental and student preferences and that ensure equity of access. Furthermore, default school assignment by the district should be discontinued. Every parent should be required to engage in school choice, thereby eliminating socioeconomic differences in the likelihood that parents will shop for schools.

Local school districts should not be the architects and managers of either the choice process or the provision of information that parents use. Instead, schools should be required to participate in data collection for performance reporting as a condition for receiving federal funds. Secondly, the feds should directly and competitively fund designers and implementers of school choice portals.

Abolish federal testing and accountability provisions and replace them with either common core standards and assessments or multiple systems of normed standards and assessments for states that adopt the choice-based approach. Both approaches would enable parents to make informed choices by revealing valid information on a school’s performance in raising academic achievement.


Reform of the federal role in education must be accompanied by competition for students among education providers in local education markets.

Facilitate Orderly Expansion of the Charter School Sector. To ensure a supply of schools from which families may choose, states should establish a system for authorizing charter schools that enables the sector to expand to meet demand; that provides funding under the same weighted formula that applies to all other publicly-supported schools; and that offers charter schools access to capital commensurate with district school funding. Charter schools require careful oversight through appropriately funded authorizing bodies. States that do not allow charter schools, or that arbitrarily cap their growth, or that turn their authorization over to the very school districts with which charters compete, should reform their practices.

Every parent should have the right to choose where their children are schooled.

Level the Playing Field for Other Competitors: Cyber Schools, Inter-district Schools, and Private Schools. Supporting technology as a delivery mechanism will substantially enhance competition and productivity. Because school districts have been reluctant to invest in anything that disrupts their current operations, market demand for virtual courseware and new distance-learning technologies has been suppressed. To unshackle demand, states and school districts should be prohibited from establishing policies that unreasonably interfere with the provision of education services by out-of-state or out-of-district providers, including online charter schools and distance learning providers. They should, instead, make enrollment in such schools readily available.

The federal government has a long history of promoting interstate markets through its authority under the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause. The federal government could take legal action or support legal claims against states and local school districts that restrict or prohibit access to Internet-based education services that are provided outside district or state borders.


—Our approach, if adopted, represents a fundamental shift in the federal government’s role in K-12 education. It is difficult for any institution to embark on a new path that affects broad swaths of its constituents. But there is a way forward.

—Evidence that the federal government can legislate and regulate substantial increases in the effectiveness of public schooling is weak. By one credible estimate, over a five-year period, the massive No Child Left Behind intervention raised fourth-grade math scores by an amount equal to about four months of schooling and had no effect at all on reading. Are there good reasons to expect that more top-down direction from Washington will succeed? We don’t think so, based on past history.

—We offer states the opportunity to opt out of current federal mandates to embark on a course of choice, competition, and academic excellence. States that wish to continue the status quo may do so. Opting out of federal mandates in exchange for experimental reform is the course that Washington took on welfare reform in the 1990s. It is the way forward for education reform as well.

—By shifting its policies on K-12 education to match those it has adopted for postsecondary education, the federal government could provide to parents something nearly every parent wants—the right and opportunity to choose where their children are schooled—and create a powerful engine for innovation and productivity. Allowing students and their families the freedom to choose—encouraging cyberschools, charter schools, private schools, and vouchers combined with the availability of good information on school performance and backpack funding—could create a dramatically different landscape for schooling than is currently available in the United States.

We will soon see if expanded choice of schools, competition among education providers for weighted student-based funding, good and accessible information on school performance, the yield of a healthy federal education R & D enterprise, and vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws are sufficient to generate significant progress.

—by The Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education: Chester E. Finn Jr., John E. Chubb, Williamson M. Evers, Eric Hanushek, Paul T. Hill, Caroline M. Hoxby, Tom Loveless, Terry M. Moe, Paul Peterson, Herbert J. Walberg, and Grover J. Whitehurst