A few years ago, I went into a fast food restaurant only to do an abrupt about face and leave without ordering. My daughters, who were with me, were understandably curious about this. I explained to them my reason for not eating there was the clearly posted health department grade: "B minus." This led to a discussion about rating criteria, the concept of grades, and consumer choices. Those same issues are bound to produce a lot of acrimony on January 30, 2004, when for the first time in the history of Michigan public education, the state will issue grades for public schools, which will be released to the general public.

The new reporting requirement is part of the federal government's "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) Act of 2001. The NCLB is a bi-partisan attempt to reform education through a voluminous set of mandates that impose financial penalties upon schools that fail to make "adequate yearly progress," as defined by the law. According to a U.S. Department of Education website, www.ed.gov, not only does the NCLB "... require states, school districts and schools to provide annual report cards," the report cards must also reveal the following information:

  • student academic achievement, as a whole and divided into subgroups;

  • comparison of students at basic, proficient, and advanced levels of academic achievement;

  • graduation rates;

  • professional qualifications of teachers;

  • percentages of students not tested; and

  • whether the school has been identified as "in need of improvement."

Over the past several decades, America’s public schools have become known for their lack of accountability. While not condoning the federal government’s intrusion into education, there should be little wonder that sooner or later that authority to which the educational establishment sought to submit virtually every decision with regard to educating our children — the federal government — would call it to account. At the very least, it is humorous to consider that, judging from its reaction to the prospect of being graded, the educational establishment apparently never dreamed that the coercive power of the federal government could be turned upon it in ways it does not like.

Of course, the reason the federal government is requiring schools to be graded and that those grades be publicly posted is the same reason the health department grade was posted in the fast food restaurant: It gives consumers objective information that might otherwise be obscured by the establishment. This allows consumers to make more informed choices. In the case of restaurants, a low grade may mean that the consumer will choose to go elsewhere.

Under the provisions of NCLB, parents with children in failing schools are entitled to do exactly the same thing — and the funding will follow the child. It is precisely for this reason that the public is about to hear an outcry against the "fairness" of grading schools. In fact, that outcry has already begun. According to Martin Ackley, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Education, after receiving their government "grades" in December, 55 percent of the state’s elementary and middle schools filed 1,514 appeals, and 63 percent of high schools filed 525. This means that of around 3,700 public schools in Michigan, more than 2,000 have filed appeals — some have filed more than one.

The outcry is also being raised, predictably, by teachers’ unions. The National Education Association — the largest teachers’ union in the country — is denouncing what it calls the "impositions" of the NCLB law because it "focuses on ... federal mandates rather than local flexibility ... rather than teacher-led, family-oriented solutions."

Again, it is highly ironic to hear NEA complaints about "federal mandates" when NEA lobbying was instrumental in the creation of a federal Department of Education in the first place, and when the NEA has lobbied for decades to make all of public education in America into one huge federal mandate. What the NEA doesn't endorse, however, is a completely decentralized educational system where all parents have a choice of where to educate their children — a reform that works, but doesn't do anything to enhance the union’s access to money and power.

In a system of free choice in education, government-issued grade cards wouldn’t be necessary, because schools would do well or perish. Parents would be able to "vote with their feet," by taking their children out of failing schools and placing them in successful ones.

As things stand, the public school system is not going to admit willingly that it hasn’t made the grade — and it has been caught by surprise by a federal government that understands this. Now, the schools’ failure to perform adequately is about to be made public in a big way, and all educators can do is denounce the system that exposed them — a system they constructed in the first place.

Instead of complaining, education officials should follow the same advice they give to students who earn low grades: Accept responsibility; get help and work hard to improve. When schools do "make the grade," they won’t have to mandate that children attend, any more than people have to be assigned to eat at a good restaurant. Parents will be lined up at their doors.

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Brian Carpenter is director of leadership development at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.