Advancing a Free Society

The Right Role for the Federal Government

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

When school districts are failing, what should the federal government do?

A) give districts money?
B) deny districts funds?
C) subject districts to tight regulations?
D) force districts to compete for federal dollars by promis­ing to improve?
E) tell the truth while insisting parents be given a choice of school?

Policymakers have responded to this, the nation’s most challenging multiple-choice education quiz, with four different wrong answers. Now, with the release of the Koret Task Force report, policymakers have a chance to get it right, as they consider the reauthorization of the federal education law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

President Jimmy Carter chose the first answer, swelling the federal share of education spending to an all-time high. Yet according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, high-school seniors perform no better today in math, reading, or science than they did when Carter held office.

President Ronald Reagan curtailed the share of K–12 education spending paid out of the federal treasury. That did not lift student performance either.

With the passage of NCLB, the George W. Bush administration subjected failing schools to sanctions if test performance did not improve. Notable gains were made, as Eric Hanushek points out in his provocative analysis of the benefits of the school accountability law. But NCLB’s complicated regulations proved to be unworkable and ineffectual.

Now, the Obama administration has sought to boost school improvement through Race to the Top by getting states and districts to compete for some federal dollars with promises to execute needed reforms. Not surprisingly, state and district promises are more easily made than kept.

Four strategies. Four failures. What should the federal government try next?

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