Bush's education package threatens local control

This article originally appeared in the Detroit News on May 25, 2001 at http://www.detnews.com/2001/editorial/0105/25/a12-228213.htm.

President George Bush's education agenda -- the No Child Left Behind Act -- is lauded as the "bill to close the achievement gap with accountability,flexibility and choice, so that no child is left behind." Although the president's plan suffered several major revisions, it successfully emerged from the House Education and Workforce Committee with only seven members' objections. The nature of these objections and weeks of emotional debate that ended with the House passing the bill this week point out the need for a closer review of this proposal.

Not only would it do little to improve public education, it would erode local control and further expand the federal government's involvement in education.

To assess the potential impact of the No Child Left Behind Act (H.R. 1), it is useful to understand that the reforms fall into three categories: Those dealing with rules, those involving resources and those concerning incentives. Most reforms implemented during the past three decades have focused on changing the rules or increasing resources. Few reforms have leveraged the power of market-based incentives.

Rules-based reforms include such things as imposing national and state testing, extending school days and the school year, changing teacher certification and school accreditation requirements, and the like. Resource-based reforms include such measures as increasing funding, buying new textbooks, wiring schools for Internet access, renovating or updating school facilities, reducing class sizes and other measures requiring greater financial spending.

While management and resource allocation are very important issues in education, reforms in these areas have failed to significantly improve the quality of public education. The U.S. Department of Education recently issued a report that documents the results of rules-based reforms: 38 million hours of paperwork per year, or the equivalent of 18,000 public school employees only filing out forms. Twenty-five years of reforms pumping additional resources into urban areas resulted in the country's widest achievement gap between white and African-American students. These two types of reforms together have created more than 760 education-related programs spread across 39 federal agencies.

Instead of manipulating the laws or adding more money, reformers are increasingly focusing on introducing market incentives into the system -- that is, greater choice and competition. This new dynamic compels schools to either improve or risk going out of business. Advocates of such reforms suggest that just as consumers improve the products they purchase by exercising their judgment of value in choosing one product over another, parents will be able to improve education by applying their own values and priorities in selecting a school. Schools will be supplied with the needed market incentives that drive continuous quality improvement in every other area of our economy.

Which kind of reform is the No Child Left Behind Act? While the preamble of the bill and its advocates recognize the need for market incentives, a closer look reveals that H.R. 1 is merely more of the same ineffective dead ends. It is heavy on rules and money for public education but lacks any market incentives. Greater regulation on all public schools abounds in the nearly 1,000-page bill.

It doesn't stop there. H.R. 1 boosts funding to the U.S. Department of Education's K-12 programs by 22 percent. This department ironically would receive the single largest increase of any Cabinet-level agency considering its historic financial mismanagement (two unacceptable audits in recent years and more than $400 million in missing funds) and the fact that the department does not educate a single child.

The original plan offered an anemic "school choice demonstration" project in an attempt to balance additional rules and resources with a modest incentive program. The choice program, which amounted to about one-half of one percent of the federal education budget, was unceremoniously removed from the bill in committee because it was too controversial.

A few policymakers recognize that the No Child Left Behind Act lacks essential incentives necessary for effective education reform. One congressional leader, Michigan's Pete Hoekstra, is advancing a reform that would spur competition and inject market forces into the education system. Hoekstra's education credit proposal builds on successes at the state and local level by expanding choices among parents, taxpayers and teachers without creating new rules and regulations.

Supporters of the No Child Left Behind Act should recognize that "better" rules and "targeted" resources would not improve our public schools. More of the same will produce more of the same.

Matthew J. Brouillette and Mary F. Gifford are education policy analysts at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, an educational and research institute in Midland. Write letters to The Detroit News, 615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, MI 48226, or fax to (313) 222-6417 or send e-mail to letters@detnews.com.