Competition, Not Control, Will Improve Schools

Freedom Politics, July 30, 2009
U.S. Rep. John P. Kline, Minnesota Republican recently gained the ranking minority slot on the House Education and Labor Committee, a signal that Republicans are re-thinking their support for federal education activism in favor of local control, their old-time religion. The GOP should remember that government control, at any level, has been the bane of education and that systemic reform will only occur with universal school choice.

“Let’s get the federal government out of dictating to schools how they’re going to do their business,” says Rep. Kline, in response to the mandate-heavy No Child Left Behind. That’s good Reagan-esque rhetoric but Mr. Kline is also against federal efforts to implement school-choice programs, which is definitely unlike Ronald Reagan.

In his speech to the 1984 Republican national convention, President Reagan said that by choosing private education parents have to pay tuition for private school and taxes to support the public education system. This double taxation, observed Mr. Reagan, was unfair to millions of average Americans. Thus, during his presidency, Ronald Reagan proposed ambitious voucher and tuition tax credit plans for low- and middle-income Americans.

The Gipper knew that school choice was the best way to give true local control to those who matter most: parents and their children. In contrast, by opposing federal choice efforts Rep. Kline not only loses an opportunity to educate the public about the importance of choice, he might also end up unintentionally empowering local educrats and union bosses.

Republicans have historically and wisely supported giving maximum decision-making power to the most practical and effective level of government closest to the people. Yet, in education the situation is more complex because of the presence of powerful special-interest groups like teacher unions.

In their book Education and Capitalism, Herbert Walberg of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and Joe Bast of the Heartland Institute observe: “Government school administrators, teachers, and other staff represent a major voting bloc, especially in districts where few citizens vote in school board elections. They also contribute campaign funds and volunteers for local elected officials. As a result, local school boards around the country are thoroughly cowed by teachers unions and unable to represent the interests of children.”

In reality, note Walberg and Bast, local school boards are less important than “the unelected superintendent who prepares the budget and negotiates with the school staff” and “certainly less than the skilled and experienced union officials who claim to speak for all teachers.” The sad result is that, “Somewhere down the tortuous road of collective decision-making and delegation, the wishes of the individual parents fall by the wayside.”

Local teacher-union contracts reveal why simply relying on local control of education decision-making won’t result in better schools. One such contract in southern California, in a Republican area, prohibits principals from making unannounced visits to a classroom. Announced visits are limited to four minutes and the principal’s observations cannot be used to in a teacher’s evaluation. Worse, no student test-score data can be used to evaluate a teacher.

Local control over education policy must therefore include widespread school-choice programs such as vouchers empowering all parents to pull their children out of the public schools and send them instead to private schools. That would break the stranglehold the teacher unions and other special interests currently have on local public education. The unions, the district bureaucracies, and the school boards would have to focus on catering to their true clients – the parents and their children. Full competition between the private and public education sectors would push student achievement and education quality ahead of special-interest priorities such as automatic pay increases, teacher tenure and seniority privileges.

“Just as more incentives are needed within our schools, greater competition is needed among our schools,” said President Reagan in his 1983 State of the Union address. “Without standards and competition, there can be no champions, no records broken, no excellence in education or any other walk of life.”

Substituting one level of government control for another will mean nothing unless legislators give equal billing to market competition and broad parental choice. Ronald Reagan understood this essential truth. Rep. Kline and the congressional Republicans need to understand it, too.

Lance T. Izumi is the Koret Senior Fellow and Senior Director of Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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