I love it when good stories are told. And often times, it's good storytelling that makes for persuasive politics. Here's the story of Mercedes Campbell, one of the 1,700 students in the Washington, DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, otherwise known as the school voucher program passed by Congress in 2004. The video was produced by Nick Gillespie and Dan Hayes of Reason.tv.
We all know the why vouchers are good, and we all know the arguments for school choice. Yet, "voucher" seems to be one of the only words coming out of the Right when it comes to education policy. President Obama has already made clear what his policy goals are for energy and health care: cap-and-trade and universal government-mandated coverage, respectively. But he hasn't outlined his plans on education. Now would be a good time for Republicans to get out in front of the President and present him, and voters, with common sense principles and policies on education reform.
Yes, we should fight to save the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program. But as great as vouchers are, if all we present to the public is "pro-vouchers," we will once again be struck down by the other side of the aisle as just peddling "old, tired ideas tied to the past eight years."
So what can we do? We should present the public with some simple principles, and ask the President to abide by those principles:
- More money does not equal better results. Of course, this principle is true of many things government does, but it is especially true in education. Part of the reason the voucher program was created in DC was the fact that DC public schools were receiving one of the highest amounts of funding per pupil, yet had some of the worst results. President Obama might agree with this principle, but I find it hard to believe that he'll be practicing it. We should hold him accountable, and demand specific results: a return on the taxpayers' investment. Speaking of results ...
- The goal should be to move every child forward instead of "leaving no child behind." The premise of No Child Left Behind was a good one: accountability. Yet the means by which the federal government demanded accountability were bad: federal government control of the metric of success and relying on standardized testing as the baseline. The idea of trying to get every student to meet a certain baseline of knowledge measured by test results flies in the face of the fact not every child learns the same way. What should be measured is whether or not an individual student improved from where he or she was previously, whatever level of knowledge he or she started out with. This should be presented as a principle that is a drastic change from President Bush, therefore one that President Obama should embrace.
- Schools are more able focus on kids' strengths, not weaknesses, when local control is restored. Usually when the federal government gets too involved in domestic policy, it snuffs out creativity and entrepreneurship in that area. Local control of schools, on the other hand, means more local understanding of the cultural and socioeconomic issues the schools are surrounded by. This usually means more creativity in teaching different types of students and more options for parents, whether it's building special programs for Alaska Native students in the Anchorage School District or allowing folks like Ron Clark to build academies to help disadvantaged students in Harlem and North Carolina. We'll see how much control President Obama is willing to give up.
- It should be easy to recruit the best teachers, and it should be easy to fire bad teachers. It's a classic battle: common sense vs. teacher union leadership. I'm all for increasing teacher salaries, but school districts around the nation need to have the courage to rethink teacher tenure. Will President Obama agree with treating teachers like professionals?
- Not every child can, or should, go to college. As Charles Murray said in an NYT op-ed in December, "It’s what you can do that should count when you apply for a job, not where you learned to do it." The overemphasis by public school teachers, counselors and administrators on getting into college leads to a dangerous elitism that can instill a permanent sense of underachievement in many students. I understand that putting this principle into practice will take more cultural change than political action, but it doesn't mean that lawmakers can't make the effort to start the paradigm shift. At the state and local level, more options should be provided to students at the secondary education level so that they can start on a path of learning that suits their learning needs and potential career goals, including charter schools (which President Obama mentioned in his address to Congress.) At the federal level, more can be done to encourage vocational post-secondary education (another policy that Obama should agree with.)
Republican lawmakers on the Hill should offer these principles and corresponding policies to the White House and, for once, get out in front and make the President react to something we present instead of reacting to him. Just as important: like-minded conservatives need to be on the lookout for opportunities and ideas for reform in local school districts, and pay attention to local school board races.