Education for All: Choice, Reform, and Optimism

Rodney Paige

"Education for All: Choice, Reform and Optimism"
FRIDAY, JUNE 4, 2004

Note: Dr. Paige delivered these remarks at a policy briefing for members of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy boards of advisors, directors, and their guests.


Thank you for that kind introduction. Before I begin, I want to thank you for all you’ve done for our nation’s children. The Mackinac Center and institutions like it have helped blaze a trail of education reform in Michigan and across the nation.

And by the way, don’t worry about "misappropriating" my words or "likeness" – feel free to quote me all you want!

Today, thanks in part to your hard work and dedication, our students have greater opportunities to learn — their parents have more choices – and their schools are governed by higher expectations than ever before.

Stay Engaged

Receive our weekly emails!


It wasn’t always so. In 1988, the year your Center was founded, President Ronald Reagan’s Education Secretary Bill Bennett gave a report on the state of education in our country.

Bennett said, and I quote, "an ethos of success is missing from too many American schools." "Too many students do not graduate from our high schools, and too many of those who do graduate have been poorly educated," he said.

He noted that reforms were often blocked by those with "a vested interest in the educational status quo," engaged in "the narrow, self-interested exercise of political power."

Sound familiar?

Well, as you know, the defenders of the status quo have not gone away or given up. And they are certainly not shy about exercising their power.

And yet, they’ve had to step back and watch as real, lasting reforms have taken root, over their fierce objections, all across the country.

  • Today there are nearly 3,000 charter schools nationwide — nearly 200 in Michigan alone — compared to zero in 1988.

  • Over 40 states allow and encourage charter schools.

  • Eleven states now offer vouchers and/or tax credits or deductions for tuition. [source: Heritage Foundation]

  • And, contrary to the opinion of every defender of the status quo, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that vouchers are constitutional.


So how did we get to this point? A diverse group of civil rights leaders, entrepreneurs, teachers and principals, parents, politicians and think tanks such as yours came together — all eager to overcome the tired old excuses for poor performance.

They decried the growing achievement gap in our schools — millions of children left behind and left ill-prepared for life’s challenges.

A vast majority of those left behind are African-American, Hispanic, special needs, English-learners, or low-income students.

For various reasons, none of them good, they were simply passed on from grade to grade by an indifferent education monopoly. Decades after Brown vs. Board of Education, "social promotion" had created a de facto "separate but equal" education system in this country.

The statistics tell the tale. By the time they reach 12th grade, only one in six blacks and one in five Hispanics can read at grade level. Math scores are even worse: only three percent of blacks and four percent of Hispanics are testing at the proficient level. It is an outrage.

In Michigan, 70 percent of African American 4th graders and over half of Hispanic students are below basic levels in reading, compared to 25 percent of white students. It’s one of the largest gaps in the nation.

President Bush has declared education the "new civil right." Only by closing this achievement gap can we right this tremendous wrong.

This reform-minded coalition also pointed to the dangers of an under-educated workforce. The quality of education deeply affects our economic competitiveness in this global economy.

Education is an important indicator of productivity. That’s bad news for us: the United States has the largest concentration of adults in the lowest literacy levels of any industrialized country.

And U.S. 12th-graders performed among the lowest of 21 countries in math and science [source: the Third International Mathematics and Science Study].

And so, since World War II, worker productivity has grown more slowly here than in any other industrialized country.

A poor education hurts our bottom line in more ways than one. A study by your group [the Mackinac Center] estimated that remedial education and training cost businesses and colleges in Michigan approximately $600 million annually; or about $16 billion for the U.S. as a whole – and that was four years ago!

It is simply unfair to force businesses and colleges to become the K-12 educators of last resort. Clearly, the system was broken.

Next, parents began to demand real choices and change. It had become fashionable in the 1980s and ‘90s to point fingers – to place the blame for the problem anywhere but where it belonged.

Here were some quotes by defenders of the status quo: "The problems that exist in the schools are a reflection of the larger society." Or this: "There are a lot of societal factors that we have no control over — television, broken homes and the rest." And so on.

One of their favorite tactics was to blame a lack of parental involvement — after the rules were rigged so that parents were given very little say over education. Parents saw through the excuses and demanded better for their children.

One of those excuses was a "lack of money." The establishment saw education not in terms of how many children were learning, but rather how many dollars were being spent.

Ladies and gentlemen, we spend $501 billion annually on K-12 education – more per pupil than any other country except Switzerland. If we could have spent our way to better results, it would have happened a long time ago.

A key "tipping point" for change came when a wave of visionary, conservative Governors took office across the country — including George W. Bush.

As Superintendent of the Houston public schools, I witnessed firsthand as Gov. Bush successfully worked to close the achievement gap and "leave no child behind" in Texas. He brought that same compassion and passion for reform to the White House.


And that is why, two-and-a-half years ago, I was proud to stand with the President as he signed the No Child Left Behind Act.

Ladies and gentlemen, this law is the next logical step in our efforts to provide real reforms and real choices.

No Child Left Behind has one primary goal: to close the achievement gap and get all students in America to grade level or better in reading, writing and mathematics.

That should have been the goal of public education all along. But now, we are holding states accountable for the taxpayer funds they spend. The new message from Washington is: if you take the money, we expect you to use it wisely to educate all your children.

Now I know some of you may think that NCLB is another Washington over-reach. That’s a misconception.

We have given states unprecedented flexibility to reach their goals. We’ve made sure that local control is preserved. Under No Child Left Behind, we’re focused like a laser on results; we leave it to the states and schools to find the best ways to achieve them.

Today, all 50 states have their own accountability plans to ensure proficiency in reading, writing and math. In other words, the people of Michigan set the standards for the children of Michigan.

States can spend federal funds on teacher quality, technology and innovations, safe and drug-free schools programs — whatever is needed, without prior approval from Washington.

Education is a state and local responsibility, it’s true. But there is a compelling national interest as well. In the past the federal government has stepped in to correct overt unfairness or inequality. Witness the Brown vs. Board of Education case.

Nevertheless, we take seriously the words of James Madison: "the powers delegated by the…Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which…remain in the state governments are numerous and indefinite."

That’s why under No Child Left Behind, states and schools determine which educational programs and practices work best for their students, as long as they are rigorous and proven sound scientifically. No fads, please!

No Child Left Behind is a framework for excellence. It does not handcuff states and localities to a thick book of rules and regulations. You choose the process – as long as you achieve results.

No Child Left Behind also empowers parents with information about how their child’s school is doing.

Finally – and here’s the greatest change — it provides more choices to parents, in the form of free tutoring, after-school services, marketplace solutions, even transfers to another public school.

In the first year, more than 160,000 students took advantage of these choices. And we know that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Public school choice can be combined with vouchers or opportunity scholarships in several states, giving parents more options than ever.


To that end, I am also proud to say that for the first time, parents in the District of Columbia now have private school choices, under the first federally-funded voucher program in the nation.

It was a tough fight. But we won it. And the dream of being able to pick a school that better serves a child’s needs will soon be a reality for families of limited economic means.

We hope that the D.C. Choice program becomes a model for the nation. President Bush has put his money where his mouth is: he has asked for $50 million for a Choice Incentive Fund to help cities across the nation start similar programs.

It is vitally important that we build a broad base of support for school choice and vouchers. It’s clear that a coalition made up of only the very poor and the very wealthy will not carry the day.

The Mackinac Center recognizes this. I applaud your leadership in support of universal education tax credits.

Tuition tax credits have shown real promise in states such as Arizona, where they’re claimed by about 50,000 residents a year. A few years ago in Pennsylvania, a business education tax credit raised nearly $8 million for students in just the first day!


Choice and competition are keys to improved schools. Studies have shown they do not just improve opportunities for a few – they improve educational performance overall.

We’re seeing that under No Child Left Behind. Ladies and gentlemen, the law is working. A study by the Council of Great City Schools found the racial achievement gap in our urban school districts is beginning to narrow.

Detroit Public Schools students, for example, have shown significant improvement in reading at both the 4th- and 7th-grade levels. Twenty percent more 4th-graders and 10 percent more 7th-graders now meet or exceed state standards.

And nationwide, math scores have increased among all 4th- and 8th-graders, with the greatest progress shown by low-income students. Every day, it seems, there’s news of progress – most recently in Wisconsin, Arkansas, Texas, Maryland and Ohio.

Still, NCLB continues to attract opposition from the "status quo defenders." Of course. Some complain that the law is unrealistic in its demand that all children read at grade level by the year 2014.

Ladies and gentlemen, the United States went from the Wright Brothers to Neil Armstrong in one lifetime. I don’t believe getting our children to read at grade level in a decade is an impossible dream!

We also continue to hear complaints about money. But, as the General Accounting Office confirmed last month, No Child Left Behind is not an unfunded mandate, despite the chorus you hear in the media echo chamber.

Some in positions of power use the banner of "unfunded mandate" as an excuse not to implement the law. Again, money is not the problem – but rather, how it is spent.


In the end, it’s about giving parents and children more educational choices – more power – more control over their own destiny.

I wish I could stand here and tell you that we were at the finish line, that we’ve achieved all of our goals, and that federal action is not necessary. But, at this time, it is.

The educational system has become a monopoly. And like all monopolies, it needs an injection of fresh ideas, sunshine and competition. No Child Left Behind and our other federal reforms offer all of the above.

Like President Reagan, we remain optimistic about the future. Reagan pushed hard for tuition tax credits despite strident opposition from Congress. "Our proposal is on Capitol Hill again," he once said, "and like Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan, I'm going to charge up that hill until we get a victory."

It can be morning in America again. After all, we have the power of ideas on our side – which is more powerful than any special interest or status quo defender.

We will keep the flame burning for choice and reform. We know they will make a real difference for our children. And we know that the public will stand with us.

When he signed the No Child Left Behind law, President Bush said four other words of extreme importance: "Every child can learn."

He truly believes that, as do I. I believe you do, too.

And so, together, we will, like President Reagan, keep charging up that hill until this achievable dream for our children comes true. Thank you.