Students in Failing Public Schools Need Federal Education Reform

Published September 1, 2008

During his address at the 99th annual NAACP Convention in July, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) had an opportunity to make education reform a key issue in this year’s presidential campaign. But to paraphrase the immortal Don Adams as Maxwell Smart, McCain “missed it by this much.”

McCain correctly fingered the fundamental hurdle to education reform when he said, “When a public school fails … parents ask only for a choice in the education of their children. … No entrenched bureaucracy or union should deny parents that choice and children that opportunity.”

Real Reforms Ignored

However, McCain fell short on identifying an adequate solution.

Instead of putting forth a bold vision for education that addresses reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and reflects the growing consensus on school choice, McCain offered the standard fare about merit pay, alternative certification, and devoting a few federal shekels to develop virtual charter schools.

Meanwhile, his opponent, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), has offered even more tepid, rehashed hash when explaining to low-income families in big cities why it’s fine for their children to be relegated to schools everyone knows will fail them while his own daughters attend the prestigious University of Chicago Lab Schools.

In other words, neither presidential candidate has offered much inspiration on the issue of education.

Dismal Reality

In what has been relentlessly billed as a “change” election, both candidates seem unnervingly content with the status quo on education despite nationwide systemic failures and parents’ concerns.

In April The Associated Press reported 17 of America’s 50 largest cities had public high school graduation rates under 50 percent. Detroit’s graduation rate is less than 25 percent.

In our global, digital economy, those numbers are death knells. A bachelor’s degree, not to mention a high school diploma, is not just a comparative advantage; it’s an indication of whether one will be a “have” or a “have not.”

On average, a person with a bachelor’s degree will earn twice as much over his or her lifetime as someone with only a high school diploma, and this disparity is widening.

Federal Reform

My strict constructionist friends say the U.S. Constitution provides no role for the federal government in education. That responsibility rests with the states.

That’s true, but the reality is that the federal government will spend nearly $40 billion on primary and secondary education this year, approximately 30 percent of which will be dedicated to help school districts meet the mandates under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

So, sidestepping the constitutionality debate for a moment, here’s what I propose (Sens. McCain and Obama, take out a pen and paper):

  • Scrap NCLB. It was well-intended legislation designed to infuse performance standards into school systems that had discarded all measures of accountability. Unfortunately, well-intentioned does not mean well-designed. NCLB is federal cookie-cutter legislation with a plethora of unfunded mandates and too many trap doors along the pathway to true choice.
  • Set up a Stafford Loan-type program for targeted elementary and high schools. Colleges and universities compete for students. We know this. And students can take their federal Stafford Loan money and go to any school they want, public or private, which accepts such financing (virtually all colleges and universities). America’s collegiate system was, until recently, the envy of the world.

So why not apply the same approach to elementary and high schools?

Subsidizing the Child

Setting aside the federal dollars for IDEA compliance would leave approximately $28 billion of the $40 billion the federal government spends on K-12 education to set up a no-interest (indexed to inflation) loan program for parents of students in failing schools.

We should make that money available to parents of students in schools where more than 75 percent of students test below proficiency in reading and math according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests in 4th and 8th grades.

This way, the federal government stops investing in systems, particularly failing systems, and starts investing directly in students. It also gets the federal government out of the business of being the national hall monitor for our schools, which in turn prevents the imposition of more ineffective, one-size-fits-all mandates.

Since the goal is no longer a high school diploma but, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree, I would further advocate that loans taken out for primary and secondary education could be deferred without interest if the student goes on to college.

Proven Demand

Those who argue parents won’t take out such low-interest loans have not been watching the response to school choice programs in big cities.

In Cleveland, for instance, a family with a household income below 200 percent of the federally defined poverty line is given preference for scholarships of up to $1,875 annually. In 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Cleveland’s citywide voucher program constitutional, 96 percent of the 3,700 children participating in the choice program elected to attend religious schools. The scholarship amount of $1,875 does not cover the annual tuition costs at very many private or religious high schools in metropolitan areas.

But school choice is in such demand that low-income families with children in failing public schools are willing to find ways to make up for any financial shortfall in order to leverage state dollars to send their children to better schools. In Cleveland, they must produce the money up front. This indicates the likely response others will have if the opportunity to borrow money for their children’s education, effectively without interest, is made available.

Seismic Change

Admittedly, $28 billion is not enough to provide no-interest loans to the estimated 11.5 million children in failing public K-12 schools nationwide. However, it would represent a seismic shift in how we think about education in this country. It would also launch the positive system changes that inevitably come from competition for students and the dollars that follow them.

More importantly, such a plan would prevent millions of children from being permanently relegated to second-class citizen status in this country, the inevitable result of being forced into schools that do not educate.

Dan Proft, J.D. ([email protected]) is a principal of Urquhart Media LLC, a Chicago-based public affairs firm, and political commentator for the Don Wade & Roma Morning Show on WLS-AM 890.