Education reform continues to top the list of issues facing the nation today. Americans are better informed than ever about school performance and its implications for our future, and many feel a sense of urgency about improving their children’s education. This urgency is leading to a shift in focus for education policy at all levels – federal, state and local. Many states and localities are enacting policies that put the needs of children and parents over systems, focus on improving student achievement rather than on processes and procedure and policies that empower communities, enterprising school leaders and teachers.
A tide of freedom, innovation and accountability is sweeping the education landscape in our states. This has been reflected in the adoption of high academic standards with rigorous assessments to measure student performance, increasing educational choices through strong and autonomous charter schools and reducing regulations that impede the progress of creative and enterprising teachers and school leaders. However, the federal government has not caught up with the changes occurring at the state and local level. Washington remains far too focused on micromanagement through thousands of pages of regulations attached to hundreds of programs. Simple compliance with ever-increasing procedural controls, inputs and processes has become an end in itself with little consideration given to results.
The federal government has a legitimate role to play in recognizing national priorities in education. But that is not to say that every federally expressed priority must have a corresponding federal program. For example, a national priority to improve elementary school reading scores might produce innumerable local strategies to accomplish that goal. Prudence suggests that federal funds should go to the states and their local school districts so they can decide how best to employ those funds. The people closest to the children being served should decide how best to meet their needs. We have an enormous opportunity and responsibility to improve public education and allow federal education policy to deepen and sustain the reform energies that abound in the states.
Title I came into being as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and remains the centerpiece of the federal role in public education. Part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation, its intent was noble: to provide supplemental services to improve the academic performance of poor and disadvantaged children and reduce the performance gap between rich and poor. It is well documented that the academic achievement of disadvantaged students has not been significantly improved and the performance gap between rich and poor has not been reduced. This pattern of failure can be traced to some important flaws that were part of the program’s original design or that crept in through the subsequent program reauthorizations.
First, among these flaws are funding formulas that elevate the wants of educational systems above the needs of children. Because Title I dollars are aimed at school systems rather than individual children, some eligible students currently receive no funding or services at all. Many others receive very little money and few services because they live in states with low per-pupil spending. Title I funding formulas also encourage concentrating poor students in the same schools in order to make the schools eligible to receive funds. Funding formulas must be changed to assure that every single disadvantaged child receives assistance. Rather than funding school systems, dollars should accrue to the benefit of the student. Title I should be an entitlement for disadvantaged children.
Title I also focuses on inputs, bureaucratic process and paperwork rather than accountability for results. The program demands only that money be spent in directed categories and that mandated processes be correctly followed. There is no need to demonstrate results in improving student achievement and there are no consequences for failure to do so. This must change. States and localities should be freed from inflexible, burdensome regulations. A more effective approach is to set performance priorities and give state, local and school leaders the freedom and flexibility to make decisions on how to accomplish them. In exchange for this flexibility, state and local officials should be held accountable for improving the academic performance of children. Affected districts are also eligible to receive special implementation grants that can be used to purchase new instructional materials and technology; establish after-school, summer and weekend programs; develop curriculum; or provide professional development training for teachers. The goal is to give failing districts new tools, new resources, new ideas and enough time to turn things around. But if the schools continue to flounder, provisions in the law authorize the state to get more directly involved.
Finally, much of federal education policy fails to recognize the critical importance of involving and empowering parents. Educators know that parental involvement is vital to educational success, particularly among disadvantaged students. Yet we have created a system that makes it very difficult for parents to get reliable, understandable information about school performance. What is even more troubling is that when parents get useful information, often they cannot act on behalf of their children.
For example, parents unhappy with the education a child is receiving cannot transfer that child to another school – traditional public, charter or private – and expect federal dollars to follow. Parents are also prohibited from using funds generated by their child for other services such as tutoring from private providers. Research and common sense tell us that the more educational authority is returned to parents, the more engaged they will become. Once the funds are targeted to individual students, and state and local officials are given freedom and flexibility in designing programs that address their needs, dollars should follow them to the school or educational provider of their choice, within limits set by each individual state. If parents are happy with a child’s school and progress, their Title I dollars remain. If they are not, they should be free to choose another public school, including a charter school. States could also offer such options as tutoring by approved providers.
For schools that don’t measure up, there are consequences as well as assistance available for improving. State money allocated for the education of that child follows. We place the needs of children over those of the system. But it is important to remember that scholarships are only one part of a comprehensive accountability package. Clear and measurable expectations, understandable information to parents about school performance, remediation and assistance to low performing schools and choices for students in schools that do not improve are other components of the package.
Parents should be allowed to decide what type of education their children receive. If states and local districts choose to use federal funds to empower parents of targeted children to attend charter schools, receive tutoring, or take advantage of private school choice, so be it. It is a logical extension of local control. Indeed, it is the truest form of local control. State education reforms begin with high standards and expectations. They identify clear indicators for measuring progress toward desired results and are flexible with regards to the means for accomplishing the results.