Obviously, the economy and jobs and whose vision for the future of a secure and prosperous United States will decide the race for President this year. This is an argument if the Republicans unite behind a common, over-reaching policy and philosophy that guides their solutions. With all the talk of the 1% and the 99%, income inequality will be a major topic. Instead of engaging Obama in a tit-for-tat class warfare scenario, the GOP needs to set forth this vision and Republicans have an advantage that liberals and the Democrats lack- true educational reform initiatives that create lasting, positive change and that do no bust the bank.
Educational reform touches upon so many other areas of national concern from the declining manufacturing base to national security to immigration reform to increasing the tax rolls, decreasing unemployment, job creation, innovation, health care reform, and most importantly, shrinking the divide in income inequality between the haves and the have nots. Talk to any economist or any analyst and they will tell you that the key to shrinking that disparity is education. It is the one single major factor that determines whether a person makes more money in their lifetime and can support themselves and their families. Everyone from Paul Krugman to Alan Greenspan will agree with this assessment. In fact, in his book “The Age of Turbulence,” Alan Greenspan warns that the growing income gap in the United States will lay the seeds for populist movements pitting one class against another and threatening a free market economy. He cited examples from around the world, especially Latin America where this occurred and asserted the United States was not immune from these tendencies. It is a shame that our current “President” is using this to his his political advantage.
But where the GOP has the advantage in this area is with real, meaningful, cost-effective and, in some instances, no-cost solutions. The most conservative of readers will no doubt call for the abolition of the Department of Education, but I believe that would be fruitless and fool-hearty. There is a role for a federal Department of Education. However, that role is not in K-12 education. For the vast majority of this country’s history, K-12 education was the sole province of state and local governments. It was not until 1965 that the federal government became involved. The result has been student performance stagnation at best, or declines at worst.
The Department of Education was created by the Carter Administration as a pay back to the NEA. Over the years it has grown to a bloated, ineffective and wasteful federal department that dictates a one-size-fits-all policy from Washington ignorant of local realities. It has thrown money at problems in education with dubious results. And both Democrats and Republicans have been guilty of funding this agency. The past solution offered by Democrats or Republicans has been the same liberal mantra- more money will solve the problem. A realization that this action has failed is to face reality.
Hence, the first part of the reform movement starts not with the elimination of the Department, but redefining its mission and its purpose. Essentially, all K-12 educational programs would revert to the local and state governments. Despite the vast amounts of money expended by the federal department on education, only about 9% of any school’s budget is funded by the federal government. The nuts and bolts- school construction, maintenance, teacher pay, etc.- is funded locally or at the state level. Obama’s solution has been diametrically opposed to this where he earmarks money for school construction or teacher pay. Of course, that stems from the liberal belief that money solves the problem when a greater case can be made that more federal money comes with more strings attached and those strings have stifled innovative reforms.
Instead, the “new” Department of Education would be involved in only a few programs. First, Head Start would be effectively eliminated and federal money would flow to states on a block grant basis in order to establish or expand pre-K programs. Even then, these programs would be targeted at students from low-income families with automatic enrollment and voluntary enrollment for all others. Secondly, the pre-K programs would be primarily geared towards English language proficiency and basic academic skills to prepare students for regular schooling by inculcating proper discipline and habits. Again, the state and local entities would decide the parameters of these programs.
Second, since all funding for K-12 education at the federal government would cease saving about $47 billion annually, half of that money would revert to higher education financing with the other half going towards deficit and debt reduction efforts. State and local governments would be allowed to enact personnel and curriculum reforms that best suit their local needs.
Third, the new Department would be responsible for higher education funding through grants, scholarships, and loans. They would administer the TEACH grant program that has attracted many qualified people to the teaching profession. This program grants recipients money if they “promise” contractually to teach in high need disciplines in “at need” schools. Failure to abide by the contract reverts the grant to a loan. This type of quid-pro-quo relationship between government financing of higher education and directing people to high need positions should be expanded. What is the best federal government education program in that it pays for the bulk of a person’s college costs while demanding service in an “at need” position? It is the ROTC program. In effect, the new Department, in cooperation with the BLS, would administer similar type of programs to pay college costs for those entering fields where the BLS predicts shortages in the future.
Fourth, having taught in the public school system, I can safely attest to the efficacy of the school lunch program. I also believe that the new Department should administer this program, not the USDA and that it should be funded 100% by the federal government.
Fifth, because the new Department would basically be concerned with higher education, funding for student grants, loans and scholarships could be used to encourage programs that put downward pressure on college costs. This includes programs like remote learning, on-line tutorials, and credit-by-exam. That is, colleges that show greater efforts to lower costs to students (and the government) would be rewarded.
Sixth, there is nothing with the federal government funding higher education for students through the many programs they offer- scholarships, grants, loans, etc. Some argue that the government should not be in the business of being a bank for higher education college costs. I disagree. However, like a bank, the government needs to expend their money using risk-aversive mechanisms. For example, they should not loan or grant money to people who will likely have problems or not succeed at the college level academically. We should be funding the costs of our best and brightest students regardless of color or creed or national origin. The key is the “best and brightest,” not just everyone who comes down the pike. Of course, nothing would preclude states, private banks, college endowments or any other source from helping to fund higher education costs.
In part 2 of this diary entry, I will discuss no-cost, or low-cost solutions to educational reform at the local and state level. However, as far as the federal government goes, getting them out of K-12 education should be the message. Years of funding and intrusion into an area where states were doing quite well until that federal intervention began has achieved very little in terms of student performance. In fact, it has hurt output as evidenced as declining test scores, declining graduation rates, and less parental involvement in the process. It has placed additional strains on schools to adhere to government mandates and dictates where less and less money goes towards the classroom and more and more goes to the bureaucracy demanded for compliance. It has created a classroom philosophy of “teaching to the test” that has lowered standards. The sooner the federal government gets out of K-12 education, the quicker necessary reforms can be enacted.