Republican Candidates Should Push for Real Education Reform

Published August 24, 2011

In light of his presidential candidacy, several commentators have cast wary glances at Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s record on crony capitalism and its implications for how he and other Republican candidates will approach education policy. Jay Greene commented on Wall Street Journal article outlining the crony capitalism charge: “The real problem is the hubris of thinking that a handful of government leaders can identify the ‘right’ businesses to which capital should be allocated. … In short, crony capitalism is an example of the errors of central planning.”

The predilection for central planning has been a hallmark of both Democratic and Republican policy for many decades. The hated No Child Left Behind law serves as a prime example; yet in all the controversy now surrounding the president and his education secretary’s decision to waive the law for some states (Montana received the first last week), neither the complaining states nor congressional Republicans planning to reauthorize NCLB under a slightly less centrist strategy seem to have noticed this fatal flaw in federal education policy. NCLB rests on the premise that the federal government should centrally plan
education policy.

One would think this a prime target for Republican presidential candidates, a wide-open opportunity to distance themselves from the president’s command-and-control style and to talk about how the failure to propagate an educated citizenry means we’ll never have a chance to “grow our way out” of our economic hole. But we’ve heard only the faintest peep on the subject.

Writer RiShawn Biddle notes Perry’s weak record on K-12 education reform and speculates on why Republican candidates seem to avoid the topic: Although it serves as both a symbol and instrument of federal overreach, NCLB’s accountability provisions have helped governors overcome special interests and expand school choice by exposing the public schools’ poor performance.

Biddle suggests Republican candidates should offer a less sweeping, more “centrist” vision for improving the nation’s schools, based at the federal level and using the same formula of sticks and carrots as in NCLB.

I have a better idea. The Republican candidates should consider that education, like health care, is one of the dominant sectors in the United States today and one of the few actually expanding parts of the U.S. economy. If the forces of government expansion in these areas continue unchecked, they will ultimately drown the nation in statism.

The solution is not a different federal role in central planning. It’s for the federal government to get out of central planning altogether. The Republican candidate who perceives this truth will have a real alternative to offer the nation and its voters.

(Joy Pullmann ([email protected]) is an education research fellow and managing editor of School Reform News at The Heartland Institute.)