Among the Intellectualoids

A Puny Step Forward

It's what passes for bold action at the Aspen Institute's Commission on leaving children far behind.

By 2.28.07

Send to Kindle

The Aspen Institute's Commission on No Child Left Behind recently released Beyond NCLB: Fulfilling the Promise to Our Nation's Children, a report it touts as offering gutsy proposals to solve the nation's educational problems.

"It's time to take a bold step forward and commit to significantly improving NCLB," declares a statement on the report's back cover, with its striking American flag and blue-sky motif. "We must insist on high achievement for all students. Our nation's children deserve it."

So what sort of revolutionary changes to the status quo does the report propose? None, really. Sure, it calls for a few new-ish things, like voluntary national standards, focusing on teacher effectiveness instead of credentials, and tracking the performance of individual students, but nothing really bold.

Indeed, most of the recommendations would add regulations to a law already larded with them, and none would do what's necessary to truly transform American education: Decentralize our hidebound, government-controlled education system and take power away from the teachers' unions, administrator associations, and other special interest groups that dominate it.

Of course, not all interest groups love everything the commission recommended. National Education Association President Reg Weaver, for instance, complained about the report's teacher effectiveness proposals. But small quibbles aside, the report has been praised by numerous establishment groups, such as the Public Education Network and the National Association of Elementary School Principals, and public officials ranging from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Democrat of Massachusetts, to U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.

If boldness is what you're after, those are not good signs. But what reform would fit the bill?

Something that doesn't just tweak our top-down, command-and-control educational system -- or make it worse, like federal standards -- that's what. Something that breaks the stranglehold of special interests and gives power to the parents the system is supposed to serve. Something that would enable parents to move their kids and tax dollars out of bad schools and into good ones, and would release parents and children from their present state of dependence on policymakers and bureaucrats. That something is school choice.

Unfortunately, no reform recommendation of that sort is ever likely to come from a national commission, because such bodies are almost always stacked with members of the very interest groups that would lose power were parents able to take their children and tax dollars out of unsatisfactory public schools.

The Aspen commission, for instance, was dominated by insiders, including several former officials in the U.S. Department of Education and other federal entities, a one-time teachers' union president, and numerous other individuals whose livelihoods have come from public schooling.

And Aspen isn't alone. Tough Choices or Tough Times, a recent report from the National Center on Education and the Economy, was also the work of a commission heavy on public education and political insiders, and while it advocated some new flexibility for schooling, it also called for expand-the-mold reforms, like vastly increasing teacher pay.

Thankfully, truly bold reform doesn't have to come from a national commission. Indeed, just two weeks ago it came from the state of Utah, where Governor Jon Huntsman signed the nation's first-ever universal school choice bill into law. Utah's new program is far from perfect -- it sets low voucher amounts and largely holds districts harmless when kids leave -- but by giving parents real power, it nonetheless begins to address the fundamental flaw in American public education.

Of course, the special interests aren't taking this lying down. Utah's School Boards Association, Association of School Superintendents, and PTA, among other groups, have joined forces and threatened to take the program to court, just as their cousins in other states have done whenever choice has been proposed or enacted.

As revolting as these attempts to keep children captive in public schools are, though, they do have one silver lining: They make it very clear that school choice is a truly bold step forward.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Neal McCluskey is an education policy analyst for the Cato Institute.