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FIRST-PERSON: Are students really first in America?

DALLAS (BP)–Politicians in Washington, D.C., have a real opportunity to reform our public schools. Their guiding principle should be: Do less. Education is best controlled at the local and state levels. The federal government is way too involved in public education.

Diane Ravitch served in the George H.W. Bush administration as assistant secretary of education. Now a research professor at New York University, she says the GOP has an “education dilemma.” In a recent Wall Street Journal column, Professor Ravitch write, “[T]he federal government has ballooned into the all-powerful education behemoth that the GOP long feared.” Ironically, the latest and largest growth in the federal role in education has been under President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act.

The Obama Education Department has attempted to involve the states in its plans for education reform. But the two-pronged effort is really window dressing for more federal control. Through a contest, called “Race to the Top,” the federal government has been granting stimulus money to states who submit plans to shake up their education systems. States that jump through the right hoops can win up to $750 million. Last year, Congress gave the Department of Education $5 billion in discretionary funds to promote educational reform.

Also, governors and chief school officers have developed the Common Core State Standards which are specific grade-level requirements for English and math. The program is linked to Title I funding, a source of income nearly every school district in the nation relies upon. Two states, Texas and Alaska, declined to participate. Texas Gov. Rick Perry says signing on would represent an unacceptable intrusion on states’ control over education. State governing bodies for education, usually school boards, get to decide whether to adopt the standards. States that don’t really need federal money, like Texas and Alaska, are in a better position to turn it down and proceed with improving their own systems their own way, a task at which they are doing very well.

Spokespeople for the Common Core State Standards effort say they are “a blueprint meant to replace a hodgepodge of state benchmarks with common standards.” These efforts are based upon the false assumption liberals sometimes make that “centralizing something makes it better.” It doesn’t. In fact, every shift in educational policymaking that moves decisions away from the local level toward the state and then to the federal level tips the system toward the lowest common denominator.

Professor Ravitch also points out that countries who top the U.S. in student performance on international assessments often do better at recruiting, retaining and supporting teachers. One might argue that, in the U.S., teachers unions exist to protect the privileges, priorities and pay of their members. But, too often, they present tremendous roadblocks to education reform, even opposing such common sense measures as school choice, merit pay for teachers and the abandonment of tenure.

The Obama Administration’s “Race to the Top” program encourages states to enlist teachers unions in making real reform, a difficult challenge. Michelle Rhee, who recently resigned as chancellor of the Washington, D.C. schools, attempted to do exactly that, but she faced what she calls “a bureaucracy that is focused on the adults instead of the students.” She closed failing schools, cut administration positions in half, and increased salaries for good teachers who signed a statement relinquishing tenure.

When Ms. Rhee stepped in in 2007, the D.C. school system was widely considered one of the lowest performing and most dysfunctional in the country. In her first two years on the job, the district went from the worst-performing on the National Assessment of Educational Progress to leading the nation in gains at both the fourth and eighth grade level in reading and math. By this school year, a long trend of declining enrollment was reversed. But powerful unions funded the defeat in November of Adrian Fenty, the mayor who appointed and supported Michelle Rhee. She believes she cost him the election and that she “had become a lightening rod and excuse for the anti-reformers to oppose the changes that had to be made.” So she stepped down. She’s starting a national reform group called StudentsFirst. Two recent documentaries, “Waiting for Superman” and “The Lottery” are critical of the outsized and destructive role of teachers unions. Hopefully — and prayerfully — they will spark innovation and change.

Michelle Rhee worries that if we do not change our ways, today’s students “will be the first generation of Americans who will be less-educated than the previous generation.” She and other innovative leaders are battling the old ways in cities and states across the country. Conservatives in states like Texas are fighting to return power over education to the local and state level and hold it there. Lawmakers, especially those who stand for smaller government and quality education, must fight entrenched interests to make this happen.
Penna Dexter is a conservative activist and frequent panelist on the “Point of View” syndicated radio program. Her weekly commentaries air on the Bott and Moody Radio Networks.

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