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Choosing the education reform road not taken

Parental choice in education is the way forward


President George W. Bush speaks at General Philip Kearny School in Philadelphia, Pa., on Jan. 8, 2009. Associated Press/Photo by Matt Rourke

Choosing the education reform road not taken
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In 1983, a national commission on education issued a report titled, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. The report sounded an alarm about the “rising tide of mediocrity” in American education. A lack of robust content and expectations had yielded poor outcomes. At risk were the “prosperity, security, and civility” of the United States. The urgent tone reflected the report’s context. The country was in the midst of the Cold War and just emerging from the economic misery of the 1970s.

In the 40 years since A Nation at Risk was released, policymakers have indeed made an imperative of education reform. Yet the hopes of the report’s authors have not been realized. Recent test scores show student outcomes declining, wiping out patches of only modest prior progress. Education in the United States continues to fall far short of challenging and equipping all children to pursue their full potential.

Why hasn’t the education reform movement spurred by A Nation at Risk achieved the success envisioned by the report’s authors?

A Nation at Risk emphasized the need to upgrade educational content, expectations, learning time, and teacher quality. Each of those factors has its place in bringing about educational excellence. But in a system as sprawling as public education in the United States, making progress on specifics requires tackling larger dynamics, like determining who will decide and enforce standards for content, achievement, and teacher quality. In other words, accountability matters. The report, however, overlooked these concrete systemic accountability issues, and the intransigence of the status quo proved more potent than the report’s recommendations.

When policy did start focusing on accountability, it took a wrong turn, moving oversight further away from those who know students by name. Reform efforts tended toward centralization. During the 1990s, states instituted statewide education standards and tests. “Education governors”—first Bill Clinton of Arkansas and then George W. Bush of Texas—became president and super-sized elements of their states’ standards-based reforms to apply them nationwide. These policies sought better outcomes for all students, but pursued means that could not achieve their objectives. President Clinton’s Goals 2000 was tied to an effort to institute national education standards. President Bush’s No Child Left Behind was meant to put pressure on schools that repeatedly failed to adequately educate students. But the law sought to achieve that worthy goal by creating a cumbersome system of test-score reporting, ultimately, to Washington, D.C.

In the effort to make schools accountable for results, too little attention has gone to answering a central question: to whom should schools be accountable?

In the effort to make schools accountable for results, too little attention has gone to answering a central question: to whom should schools be accountable? In the end, accountability depends on who controls educational dollars and decision-making. Not surprisingly, public schools end up answering to those who hold the purse strings in state and federal education bureaucracies, and not to parents. Yet parents have the most at stake in the success—or failure—of their children’s education.

The authors of A Nation at Risk called on parents to hold educators and policymakers accountable for implementing the report’s recommendations. However, the drafters neglected to address the structural realities that prevent most parents from doing so. True, parents can vote for elected officials who make education policy. But that indirect means may not yield change in a time frame that makes a difference for their own children. Moreover, parents have had very little direct leverage to hold schools accountable in the traditional public education system, especially when compared to organized and well-funded groups like teachers unions.

The movement for parental choice in education was born to make schools more accountable to parents by letting dollars follow students based on families’ educational decisions. Now, 40 years after A Nation at Risk, the emergence of universal parental choice in several states is a game-changer. In these states, parents can direct much of their children’s per-pupil funding to the education provider of their choice.

This new direction in education reform holds more promise of making progress toward the unrealized aspirations of A Nation at Risk. The report called for education to provide all students “the tools for developing their individual powers of mind and spirit” so that they can “attain to the mature and informed judgment” required for adult life. Education reform is essential, as the report said, to revive the “intellectual, moral, and spiritual strengths of our people which knit together the very fabric of our society.”

Directing greater accountability toward parents by empowering them with dollars and decision-making for their children’s education is an important marker of the path toward these aspirations articulated back in 1983. Four decades after A Nation at Risk, education reform appears to be embarking on that road not taken. We can only hope that other states put themselves on the same road.


Jennifer Patterson

Jennifer Patterson is director of the Institute of Theology and Public Life at Reformed Theological Seminary (Washington, D.C.) and a senior fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center.


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