Once they emerge from their electoral funk, Republicans must figure out an opposition game plan, including how to address education issues in the Obama era. A successful strategy must: pinpoint the shortcomings in policies flowing from the Democrat-controlled White House and Congress, offer a clear contrasting alternative agenda based on sound principles and make sure that their agenda is relevant to all Americans.
Criticizing the other guy is always the easy part. For example, contrary to his claims of $10 in societal benefits for every dollar invested, President-elect Barack Obama’s proposed $10 billion expansion of federal early childhood education programs would likely produce few lasting benefits, mimicking disappointing universal preschool results in Oklahoma and Tennessee. But even if Mr. Obama’s plans are defective, Republicans must offer something better.
A Republican education agenda should have three key elements: decentralization, transparency and parental empowerment. These elements are based on the party’s core principles and working together would foster systemic change as opposed to Mr. Obama’s expensive Washington-centric tinkering.
Republicans have always favored, at least philosophically, decision-making at the most practical and effective level of government closest to the people. They abandoned this concept during the Bush years, especially in education with the mandate-heavy federal No Child Left Behind Act. Republicans need to get back to their original principles and push for decentralizing education policymaking back down to the state and local level.
Republican advocates of a strong federal education role worry that locals will backslide to the bad old days of no accountability. In a Heritage Foundation report, Eugene Hickok, a former top Republican federal and Pennyslvania education official, and Matthew Ladner of the Goldwater Institute counter correctly that supporters of high standards and accountability need to avoid federal fixes “and roll up their sleeves and fight for what they believe at the state level.”
Decentralization must be accompanied by transparency so the public easily understands how tax dollars are being used or misused. One way to make education financing more transparent is to simplify the way Washington doles out money. Federal dollars could be attached to the individual child — so-called backpacking — and that money would be portable, meaning it would follow the child to whichever school he or she attends.
Dan Lips, an education analyst at the Heritage Foundation, notes that federal Title I dollars, which are supposed to go to disadvantaged students but because of complicated financing formulas result in wide per-student funding differences from school to school, “could be delivered through a simple formula based on the number of low-income students in a state” and “states could be allowed to use Title I funds in ways that make it follow the child.” The result would be a “simple and transparent system of school funding.”
Furthermore, Republicans should advocate for widespread state-based parental empowerment, specifically through school-choice options, to ensure that the state and local affiliates of Mr. Obama’s friends at the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers do not hijack decision-making power. Only if all children, not just those who are poor or have special needs, have an exit ticket out of the public school system through, say, a voucher or a tuition tax credit will state and local officials have the incentive to use their greater powers for the benefit of students rather than special interests.
Finally, Republicans need to make their agenda relevant to all Americans. John McCain supported school-choice vouchers but was never able to communicate to middle-class Americans why they should care. He never mentioned that in California, for instance, there are hundreds of public schools in middle-class areas where large numbers of students fail to perform proficiently in math and English. He never talked about people who are being forced to use their children’s college funds to send them to private schools because the local public schools are academically deficient. Republicans have to connect their policy prescriptions to these people, who could benefit from a voucher, if they are to recapture supporters who abandoned them on Nov. 4.
With crisis comes opportunity. Republicans can use their electoral downfall to jettison past baggage, get back to their core principles and reconnect with the American people. If they do so, their time in the wilderness will be short-lived.