Washington is at a crossroads on K–12 education policy. Policymakers can 1) continue down the path of top-down accountability; 2) devolve power to states and districts, thereby returning to the status quo of the mid-1990s; or 3) rethink the fundamentals, do something different, and empower parental choice.
The federal government’s involvement in K–12 education has accelerated through the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. The best evidence indicates that this substantially heightened federal role has had only modest impact on student achievement, far short of what had been hoped. It might be that further centralization would yield more benefits, but it is doubtful that more federal control is politically possible, and, in any case, any additional yield is uncertain.
The second option—devolving recently accumulated federal power to the states—underlies recent reauthorization proposals for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that allow each state to establish its own accountability system and that require teeth only for the very lowest-performing schools. It is unclear to us how releasing states and school districts from federal accountability and granting them maximum flexibility is anything more than a return to the status quo. It is the regrettable consequence of that approach that motivated increased federal involvement in the first place.
The Koret Task Force at the Hoover Institution, of which I am a member, believes that an evolved form of the ESEA that retains rigorous accountability is preferable to returning control of public schooling to local public-school monopolies and states, which will fall into old habits all too quickly. But we believe that the best interests of the nation require something other than either a return to the happy days of local school governance or evolutionary improvements to the type of top-down accountability found in No Child Left Behind.
We need a fundamentally new approach.