Congress Urged to Put Student Performance First

Published December 1, 2000

Because the interests of children and parents have been placed second to other interests, too many education reforms have resulted in stagnating academic achievement, inequitable achievement gains between white and minority students, and frustration with the status quo, according to a new report from the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Over the course of the 106th Congress, the subcommittee held dozens of hearings in Washington and around the nation to examine the states, districts, and schools that have emerged as examples of excellence in education and to ask the question: How have they achieved excellence?

The answer: By implementing policies that put student performance first.

Empowering parents and giving states and districts more flexibility are the keys to successful education reform, concludes the subcommittee’s report, Education at a Crossroads 2000: The Road to Excellence.

“The results are dramatic when states and schools are freed from burdensome federal regulations and when parents have the freedom to control decisions for their children,” observed House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman Bill Goodling (R-Pennsylvania). “Quality and results increase student achievement much better than quantity and process.”

The oversight subcommittee found the federal education bureaucracy consists of more than 760 education-related programs spread across 39 federal agencies at a cost of $120 billion a year. New education programs, it learned, often are shaped by political polls and focus groups rather than the needs of students and teachers. At the local level, these federally designed programs exact a significant toll in terms of added regulations, added accounting requirements, paperwork, and unfunded special education mandates.

“Burdensome bureaucratic requirements; hundreds of education programs grounded in little or no credible research; waste, fraud and abuse within the U.S. Department of Education itself–all of these detract from the efforts of students and schools trying to keep their eye on the prize of increased academic achievement,” declared oversight subcommittee chairman Congressman Peter Hoekstra (R-Michigan). He noted federal education policy is doing little to help education reform efforts at the local level, addressing local needs.

The Crossroads 2000 report highlights examples from around the nation of quality education reform efforts, where student performance and parental choice have driven essential innovations at the state, district, and school levels. The report also emphasizes the importance of reducing the impact of the federal bureaucracy on schools, and makes clear the need for managerial reform within the U.S. Department of Education itself.

But how to choose the road to excellence in education rather than the road to mediocrity? If federal micromanagement of how programs are run and how dollars are spent is the road that leads to mediocrity, what policies provide the signposts and guiderails for the road that leads to excellence in student achievement? The Crossroads report offers the following recommendations:

  • Give schools and school districts flexibility in achieving goals.
  • Empower parents.
  • Free states to put results first and reward success.

Flexibility for Schools and School Districts

The oversight committee heard many examples of how providing educators with expanded flexibility and accountability for results could lead to improved educational achievement. The dramatic improvement of the Chicago Public Schools is a much-discussed success story begun in 1996, when the Illinois state legislature “de-mandated” the city, giving it free rein to implement its own education reform plan. Since then, the city has seen improvements in standardized test scores, elementary school reading scores, graduation rates, and dropout rates.

“Simply put, what we want is greater flexibility in the use of federal funds coupled with greater accountability for achieving the desired results,” Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas told the subcommittee at a 1999 hearing in Chicago.

The nationwide success and remarkable growth of charter schools provides another compelling testimony to the value of offering schools flexibility in operations and accountability for results. For example, the Harvest Preparatory School in Minneapolis, Minnesota improved reading scores for kindergartners from the 53rd percentile on the California Achievement Test to the 85th percentile. Principal Eric Mahmoud attributed the improvement to innovations he had been able to implement at the school, including a switch to Direct Instruction.

The Crossroads report included specific policy recommendations for charter schools, including measures to help them secure financing for startup and facilities costs, and to ensure they received their fair and timely share of federal education dollars. While the oversight subcommittee set a high priority on fostering the growth of charter schools, members also recognized the importance of protecting charter schools from federal overregulation.

“Don’t impose uniform, prescriptive national solutions on charters that discourage or impede their efforts,” warned Representative Bob Schaffer (R-Colorado), one of the leading charter school advocates in Congress.

Empowering Parents

Florida’s “A+ Plan,” the nation’s first statewide voucher program, provides children in persistently failing schools with a voucher to transfer to another public school or to a private school. The testimony of Pensacola parent Tracy Richardson provided a moving example of how voucher programs empower parents and change the lives of their children. Richardson said she “felt like she won the lottery” when her daughter became eligible for a voucher to transfer out of a failing public school.

“In the six months that she’s been there [at her new private school], the greatest single improvement in my daughter’s education is her spirit,” Richardson said. “I see hope and excitement in her eyes that she now looks forward to school in the morning.”

Education tax credits are another source of parental empowerment, with the Crossroads report providing details of plans approved in four states. Illinois and Iowa offer tax credits for private school tuition, while Minnesota covers education expenses but not tuition. Arizona allows parents to receive $500 credits for donations to charitable programs that provide scholarships for tuition at non-government schools. The Arizona credit was the model for a federal tax credit plan, the K-12 Education Excellence Now (KEEN) Act, proposed in 1999 by Representative Matt Salmon (R-Arizona).

Free states to put results first and reward success

Inspired by the success of charter schools and the Chicago Pubic Schools, Congress has taken some initial steps to rollback federal requirements tied to education dollars and to place more emphasis on results.

For example, the Ed-Flex and Straight-A’s proposals would allow states and even school districts to accept greater accountability for results in exchange for freedom from regulations and process requirements. Florida’s Governor Jeb Bush and Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler were two of several education reform leaders who testified about the advantages such arrangements would offer state and local policymakers seeking to develop their own innovations.

Three Democrats who served on the oversight subcommittee–Harold Ford Jr., Ron Kind, and Robert Scott–issued a separate statement in which they challenged “partisanship and posturing” in the final report. “We all agree that education is best served at the local level,” they noted. “But we must be honest and remember that the federal role in public education represents only 7 percent of overall spending.”

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].

For more information . . .

The full text of the Crossroads 2000 report is available on the Internet at