Education and the American Dream: Peter Hoekstra

Published May 1, 2001

Brought to Holland, Michigan, by his Dutch parents as a wide-eyed three-year-old in 1957, and now a respected leader of education reform in the United States Congress, Representative Peter Hoekstra has lived the American Dream. Today, he wants all children to have the opportunity to pursue that same dream by making sure they have access to a high quality education.

The way to do that, Hoekstra declared recently, is not by empowering the U.S. Department of Education . . . but by empowering parents.

Hoekstra addressed more than 100 supporters of the Michigan School Board Leaders Association at the organization’s Second Anniversary Banquet in Lansing, Michigan on March 15, appropriately titled “A Celebration of the American Dream.” The Association’s executive director, Lori Yaklin, presented the Michigan Congressman with the MSBLA Legislative Leadership Award “for courageously challenging the status quo educational bureaucracy” and for defending parental rights in education.

“As Americans, we have the freedom to achieve our dreams, yet we mourn for the many children whose lack of quality education stifles their opportunities,” said Yaklin, emphasizing the vital role that a good education plays in achieving the American Dream.

Created only two years ago as a nonprofit association of reform-minded school board members, led by Van Buren School Trustee Tom Bowles, MSBLA has brought increased recognition to the role of school board members as change agents for education reform. It is the first school board association in the country to bring together charter, private, and traditional school board members in one organization focused on improving education for all children. Its priorities are:

  • to emphasize child-centered education reform;
  • to encourage efficient use of educational resources;
  • to accelerate the pace of educational improvement; and
  • to promote the benefits of cooperative competition.

“Our focus on cooperative competition is grounded in the very ideas that have made America a great and prosperous nation,” said Yaklin. “Competition is always good for the consumer; parents should have the freedom to make responsible choices for their children; an educated populace is necessary to create and preserve prosperity and liberty.”

While MSBLA promotes an education marketplace where parents are empowered to choose the best education options for their children, the association recognizes that school board members also must be empowered to govern effectively so that each school has a framework for success. To this end, MSBLA offers research, training, and support to enable school board members to be ethically responsible to the children and fiscally responsible to the taxpayers.

MSBLA also publicly advocates innovative and responsible education initiatives that focus on children, rather than entrenched bureaucracies. Some of Hoekstra’s remarks were directed at perverse incentives in the current system that did not work in the best interests of children.

“We have a very backward system where we pay and reward people for failure,” said Hoekstra, noting there is a lot of pressure from state colleges to fund remedial education at the post-secondary level instead of addressing it as a failure of K-12 schools. He pointed out that an increasing number of high school graduates need remedial education classes before they are prepared for and ready to learn college-level material.

While Hoekstra supports much of President George W. Bush’s education plan, he is concerned about the proposal to give the U.S. Department of Education an 11 percent budget increase and additional responsibilities for annual student testing.

“Why would we want to do that?” he asked. DoEd, he pointed out, is a government agency whose mismanagement had for years diverted important resources away from children, and which had been unable to achieve a clean audit of its books for the past three years. (See “‘Gross Mismanagement’ Found at U.S. Department of Education,” School Reform News, April 2001.)

“We can open the door and create an environment that is more favorable to school choice” by including parents in the education plan, Hoekstra said. One way to do that would be to experiment on a national level with the Arizona model for education tax credits.

Huizenga Honored, Too

When the Michigan Legislature opened the door to a school choice environment that included charter schools in 1993, J.C. Huizenga saw a way to deliver educational excellence through rigorous academics and strong moral development. In 2001, he received the MSBLA Visionary Award for successfully bringing his vision to reality through the creation and expansion of National Heritage Academies, which now operates 22 charter schools in Michigan and an additional five schools in other states.

Test scores at Huizenga’s schools are 35 percent above the national average on standardized tests measuring grade-level growth. The schools stress parental involvement and provide students with a back-to-basics curriculum in a disciplined environment with strong academic and moral training. Public schools located near National Heritage Academies schools have begun to stress character development and parental involvement.

For more information . . .

Further information about the Michigan School Board Leaders Association is available at its Web website at