April 18: Another Day of Reckoning

April 15 is widely reviled by Americans as a symbol of overreaching government, but April 18, just three days later, is also emblematic of this folly. It was on April 18, 1991 that President George H.W. Bush released a pamphlet entitled "America 2000: An Education Strategy."

Ultimately, the strategy became known simply as "Goals 2000" — a set of six nationalized education goals to be achieved by the start of the 21st century. Yet 2000 came and went, and despite an investment of millions of taxpayer dollars, the strategy ended like most directives from the feds: It didn’t come anywhere close to achieving its goals.

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Goals 2000 developed as a result of then-President Bush — the man who wanted to be known as "the education president" — convening a special summit of America’s governors. Forty-nine of the 50 governors met with the president for two days in Charlottesville, Va., in September 1989 to discuss the crisis in education. Former Virginia Gov. Gerald Baliles, who hosted the 1989 summit, later told a gathering at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs that the 1989 summit "fundamentally changed the balance of power on education issues and it nationalized education in a way few would have conceived just a few years earlier."


Five months after meeting with President Bush, the National Governors Association published "The National Education Goals." The following year, those goals became part of Bush’s "America 2000." Three years after that, two more goals were added, and Goals 2000 became law under President Bill Clinton in March 1994. Within a decade, it begot an even larger progeny: The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002.

No Child Left Behind has eclipsed Goals 2000 to such an extent that few people recall the existence of the earlier initiative. As a refresher, I’ve listed the goals for the year 2000 below, exactly as they appeared in "America 2000" in 1991:

1. All children in America will start school ready to learn;

2. The high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent;

3. American students will leave grades four, eight, and twelve having demonstrated competency in challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, history, and geography; and every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our modern economy;

4. U.S. students will be first in the world in science and mathematics achievement;

5. Every adult American will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship;

6. Every school in America will be free of drugs and violence and will offer a disciplined environment conducive to learning.

Mountains of data demonstrate that none of these goals were achieved. Nevertheless, as recounted above, the federal government subsequently created a significantly metastasized version of the law: No Child Left Behind — the most ponderous federal government intervention in education in American history.

But the law is being met with increasing resistance. Minnesota has legislation in its state Senate to opt out of the program. Utah is objecting to the NCLB. Connecticut has even filed suit against the program.

If these protests are signs of things to come for No Child Left Behind, it too will soon be relegated to the graveyard where Goals 2000 rests. I predict that people will be celebrating (or decrying) the premature death of NCLB — or at least its "defanging" — long before its presumed pinnacle in 2014, when, according to the Department of Education’s Web site, "all students in [every] state are achieving at the proficient level on state assessments in reading/language arts and math."

My logic for this prediction is simple.

Nobel Laureate and famed economist F.A. Hayek referred to the mistaken notion that a national economy could be effectively centrally planned as "the fatal conceit." Laws like Goals 2000 and NCLB are the educational equivalent of the fatal conceit because they are enacted on the premise that federal and state bureaucrats can effectively administer the massive government school system. In actuality, they can’t even get one district — Detroit Public Schools — under control.

The most efficient schools, like the most efficient economies, are those whose fortunes are tied directly to the discipline of the market. Independent schools, both religious and secular, operate in such a market. In important ways, charter schools do, too. When funding follows the child, as it does in these instances, there is a far greater capacity for the kind of reform American education needs.

Central planners in Washington and Lansing can never achieve this. Such planning is folly indeed, as Goals 2000 and No Child Left Behind demonstrate.

Every April 18 should remind us of this.


Brian L. Carpenter is director of leadership development for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.