Our Editorial: Reduce federal footprint in education

The Detroit News

The federal government has its grip on education in this country, from K-12 to higher ed. Despite spending billions of dollars each year on schools, U.S. student performance hasn’t improved — it’s flatlined.

All the regulations and oversight lead only to frustration from school administrators who waste time and money filling out paperwork.

As American students fall behind their peers in many other countries, Washington’s answer is almost always to throw more money at schools with the hope the influx of cash will translate into better results. But it doesn’t.

In the 2015 budget, President Barack Obama hiked education spending to nearly $71 billion. K-12 federal education spending has tripled since 1970.

The next president must focus on reducing the federal footprint on education and boosting school choice options for families.

Late last year, Congress finally got through a new version of No Child Left Behind — the law that governs the federal role in education. But the 1,061-page Every Student Succeeds Act won’t reduce the interference in schools; it maintains ineffective programs and creates new ones.

It was the best Republicans could do under Obama, but the next president should push lawmakers for broader reforms.

Similarly with higher education, the federal government would prove most helpful if it backed away from all the student aid and loans it offers college students. All that available financial aid has directly contributed to the skyrocketing costs of a four-year degree and consequent student debt. Universities feel free to raise tuition when they know students have easy access to funding.

Jeb Bush, now departed from the campaign, had one of the strongest records on education of all the candidates. As governor of Florida, he put in place reforms he advocated on the campaign trail. Florida is often upheld as a state to emulate for its good test scores, and where minority students are showing strong gains. Much of that success is due to raising standards and innovative approaches to school choice, through tax credits, vouchers and charter schools. Bush also started the Foundation for Excellence in Education to work with other states charting school reforms.

Like Bush, John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, has been criticized for his support for Common Core, the controversial K-12 education standards for math and English language arts. The standards started as a state-led effort a few years ago, and more than 40 states — including Michigan — have adopted them. Many conservatives have recoiled from Common Core because the federal government has gotten involved with testing and forcing states to sign on to the standards.

But the GOP governors have taken a realistic approach, and listened to their state school and business leaders, who support the standards.

Charter schools are the most accessible form of school choice, since many state constitutions — including Michigan’s — block vouchers and tax credits for private schools. It’s too bad that Hillary Clinton doesn’t like charters anymore, because she used to be a supporter — as did her husband Bill Clinton when he was president. She has recently come down hard on charter schools as the reason many public schools are struggling financially.

Her real motivator is her desire to get teachers unions on board with her campaign. Many teachers were displeased with the Obama administration’s general support of charters and push for tougher teacher evaluations, so Clinton wants to distinguish herself as being in the union camp.

Marco Rubio has stood out for his ideas on relieving college debt. And he’s done well contrasting his proposal with Clinton’s. Rather than her $350 billion plan to reduce debt — which would just transfer the burden to taxpayers — Rubio has supported exposing higher education to market forces and a “revolution driven by the needs of students.”

Candidates shouldn’t ignore the high costs of higher education, but easy handouts like those suggested by Bernie Sanders are not the answer. College students love the Vermont senator for offering to cover their college expenses.

Yet there is no such thing there as “free” college tuition and plans like Sanders’ will only compound the cost of getting a degree.

Donald Trump has said he supports school choice and returning control of schools to states. He’s also said he would end Common Core. Since he doesn’t have a record on education to back up his statements, it’s hard to know what he’d actually do as president. That’s also the case with Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, who echo many of the right keywords regarding accountability and choice.

Kasich, on the other hand, also supports reducing the Education Department’s influence, and has suggested creating a combined education and labor department. Like Bush, Kasich has expanded school choice in Ohio. The voucher program in that state has grown under his leadership, giving thousands more children who attend failing schools the ability to go to a private school.

The governors in the race offer the best ideas that could actually improve academics in the country and reduce costs — and they know how to implement these concepts.

Special series

This is one in an occasional series examining issues in the upcoming presidential primary election.