Add education to a long list of federal policy issues that vex and perplex today’s fractured Republican Party. It’s not so troublesome at the state level, where dozens of GOP governors have, over the years, proven their mettle by promoting higher standards, greater accountability, and wider parental choice. But in Washington, Republican presidents and members of Congress have struggled mightily to find an approach that both embraces reform and respects a limited federal role.
That’s the right needle for Republicans to thread. Though Democrats never admit it, Washington is clumsy at best, and wildly incompetent at worst, when it comes to improving schools from the shores of the Potomac. That should surprise no one—at least three levels of bureaucracy separate the secretary of education from actual classrooms. Federal carrots and sticks, no matter how carefully grown or carved, can’t overcome this fundamental challenge.
Yet abdication isn’t a realistic option for Republicans, either. Partly that’s because of politics. Voters—parents especially—want to hear leaders talk about how they will fix our schools. Most aren’t interested in lectures on the finer points of federalism. Education reform, moreover, is one of the best answers Republicans can offer to tough questions of social mobility at home and competitiveness abroad.
Then there’s the practical issue: Washington spends some $40 billion a year on K–12 education—a sum that’s unlikely to disappear. Do Republicans really want all that money pumped into union-dominated and bureaucratically paralyzed public institutions and not demand any accountability or reform in return?
This conundrum explains the herky-jerky nature of GOP education policy in recent decades—yawing from Newt Gingrich’s calls (and again lately from other GOP voices) to abolish the Department of Education to George W. Bush’s monument to big government conservatism, No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
Bush is now back in Texas, but his education law is still with us—at least six years overdue for a rewrite by our famously gridlocked Congress. Into those waters wade Senator Lamar Alexander and Representative John Kline, Republicans both, who last month presented similar plans to overhaul NCLB. Alexander's measure failed on a party-line committee vote in the Democrat-controlled Senate; Kline’s (GOP-controlled) committee sent his bill to the full House after a mirror-image partisan vote—and majority leader Eric Cantor has just signaled that it is on a fast track for consideration in that chamber.
Both bills would rightsize the federal role by terminating unnecessary or ineffectual programs, clear-cutting thickets of rules and requirements, and putting a lid on spending growth. Most significantly, they would retire Washington from micromanaging states’ testing and accountability systems, as well as their teacher-licensure practices.
But they wouldn’t abdicate all responsibility. The fundamental bargain they would make they propose is this: In return for billions in federal aid, states and schools must make results transparent. Students would continue to be tested annually, aggregate scores would be released publicly, and schools would be graded accordingly.
Sunlight alone cannot cure our education ills, but it illumines the path ahead for elected officials, education leaders, and sundry reformers at the state and local levels. They can use the information to push for real change—but nobody in Washington will force it on them. (We’d prefer that Alexander and Kline go a bit further, by making school spending transparent, too.) They can also embrace Common Core standards—and comparable testing—if they want to (and if they’re smart) so as to have better goals and gauges for their educational performance than most have been using in the NCLB era. But, again, nobody in Washington will force it.
Contrast this measured approach with that of Democrats such as Senate education chairman Tom Harkin, who would double down on federal micromanagement and prescription. Harkin’s bill, now headed to the Senate floor, seeks to introduce myriad new rules that would further enmesh federal bureaucrats in the operation of schools, on issues from funding to teacher placement, educator evaluations, pupil discipline, preschool standards, and more. Or listen to Democratic representative Jared Polis, who said of Kline’s bill that it doesn’t infuse Washington into classrooms deeply enough: “It's a non-starter for anyone who's serious about education reform.”
Balderdash. If we’re serious about reform, we must acknowledge that Washington is likelier to make things worse than better. Take our current experiment with teacher evaluations. In return for flexibility from some of NCLB’s most onerous (and least realistic) prescriptions, Education Secretary Arne Duncan demanded last year that states devise formulaic systems to measure classroom performance. The impulse is legitimate (if unconstitutional—Duncan has no legal authority to make such demands), but after going through the bureaucratic grinder, the systems that have emerged in many places don’t pass the laugh test. Spanish teachers are being evaluated based on their students’ (English) reading scores, and states are creating elaborate assessments for gym class.
Alexander and Kline are pointed in the right direction and Harkin and Polis are not. We need to be more realistic, even humble, about what Washington can actually accomplish in the K–12 education realm. That’s no call for inaction, only for aligning roles and responsibilities. To make this approach palatable to the public, however, we must also look back to the states, where GOP governors (like Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Rick Snyder, Scott Walker, and Jan Brewer) need to keep showing leadership on education. A limited federal role in education, combined with aggressive action at the state level: That’s a Republican education strategy for the ages.
A version of this article, entitled “Education reform a test for GOP,” originally appeared in Politico on July 11, 2013.