Columnists > Voices

Ownership in education?

Please give us more than a remodeled schoolhouse

Issue: "Rice: Starboard at State," Dec. 4, 2004

President Bush's appointment of Margaret Spellings of Texas as his new secretary of education is not an unmitigated disappointment. But it is a disappointment.

For those of us who believe that American education will be genuinely reformed only when it is significantly privatized, Ms. Spellings brings to her post way too much confidence in America's public schools and way too few indicators that non-state schools will be given a fair chance to compete.

The fact that Ms. Spellings's whole background is in statist schools may not be, by itself, so bad. What is bad is that she hasn't learned more during those 25 years.

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Two Bush commitments in the area of education policy, both pretty consistently displayed in his first four years by Secretary Rod Paige, are sound. One is the call for accountability-both by schools and by teachers. The other is the assertion that money is not the main problem for American education. We expect that Ms. Spellings will continue to stress those two important truths.

Accountability, you might say, is the centerpiece of Mr. Bush's first-term "No Child Left Behind" education initiative, which he promoted unendingly during the recent campaign. The accountability in view is indeed different from traditional credentialing of education on the front end, and calls instead for testing of results on the back end of the process. In other words, you don't just ask whether the teacher has a degree and a certificate. You ask instead whether the teacher's students have learned anything. You ask, and then you also measure. And the asking and the measuring do not please the educational establishment.

Neither does the suggestion that money is not the main problem of today's public schools. That's why the National Education Association is so livid that the "No Child Left Behind" program has not yet been fully funded-and that even last week, the Bush people actually cut some recommendations for federal funding for education. "It isn't as if," said one Bush loyalist last week, "it takes so much money to teach kids how to read and do basic math." What does take big money, of course, is to pay top salaries for bloated bureaucracies.

So why does the Bush administration-especially through the appointment of Ms. Spellings-seem to turn its back on those two key principles? Why does it act as if state schools are the only game in town? Why not add to the accountability factor, and make a loud announcement about how good education can happen (and regularly does happen) with fewer dollars, simply by giving non-state schools a prominent place at the table?

After all, the Bush method of measuring accountability is far more costly, controversial, and cumbersome than it needs to be. You want to know which schools are working and which ones aren't? Let the parents decide. Just watch which schools have waiting lists. Imagine, for example, what the response might be if Uncle Sam started a new program of measuring the relative quality of grocery stores before it allowed users of food stamps to go in to use them. Worse yet, imagine what the response would be if only government-owned grocery stores were permitted to serve such customers? Why is it that only in education are we so reluctant to let the market work?

And then, it's when those market forces do their work that the economic factors will come into sharper focus as well. When the public learns that non-state schools are regularly producing a superior product for two-thirds of the cost incurred by the state, the incessant whining of the NEA and other liberals may not be muted, but it will certainly be muffled.

Mr. Bush has said he wants his second term to be about the "ownership society." He wants consumers to own their healthcare programs. He wants them to own more of their Social Security and other retirement programs. He wants them to insist on tax reform, so that small business ownership is stimulated and encouraged. It is a grand and overdue vision.

But the president and his new secretary of education need to consider what a critical building block "ownership of education" is in building that wonderful new structure. They can either tinker around, and end up with a slightly remodeled schoolhouse-or they can do something radical and make an enduring educational contribution to the American public.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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