One of the greatest threats to upward mobility in American life is the mediocrity of our public schools, the worst of which rob their students of a full shot at the American dream. Yet conservatives have failed to put forward a compelling, principled vision of K-12 reform. This failure has allowed liberals to drive national education policy for the last decade, and the results have been dismal. Though the federal government accounts for about 10 percent of annual K-12 spending, federal rules and regulations exercise a disproportionate influence on America’s educational system, inhibiting innovation and burdening local educators with crippling compliance costs. Instead of micromanaging schools, Frederick Hess argues that the federal government’s role in K-12 should be to create the conditions that will allow state and local policymakers, educators, and administrators to build better schools.
To broaden the relevance and appeal of school choice for middle-class families, conservatives must ensure that choice is not only for families to escape awful schools but also a way for more families to find schools that meet the needs of their children. A more expansive choice agenda would allow states to use a larger share of federal funds to take steps like expanding online options, funding innovative programs like education savings accounts and Louisiana-style “course choice” programs, and accommodating home-schooled students. Conservatives should seek to increase transparency by requiring schools and districts to report per-pupil spending to enable various “return on investment metrics,” and to remind K-12 administrators that they have an obligation to use taxpayer dollars wisely. Shifting a small fraction of the money the federal government now wastes on professional development to basic research would go a long way towards steering investments into areas that offer generous promise. And most important, the Right should take the lead in liberating teachers from regulations that make it extremely difficult to do their jobs well — a step that will help demonstrate that while conservatives often oppose teachers unions, they are not opposed to the interests of teachers.
Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.