This week marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most influential reports on the American education system. In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education concluded in A Nation at Risk: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

Twenty-five years later, the American education system remains in a state of crisis. Microsoft founder Bill Gates does not embrace any war metaphors, but he has expressed real concern about the future of America’s ability to compete internationally: “When I compare our high schools with what I see when I’m traveling abroad, I am terrified for our work force of tomorrow.”

What Went Wrong
As well intentioned as the report’s author’s were, A Nation at Risk only fueled the conventional wisdom at the time: that what America’s education system needed was more more federal spending and intervention.

Since 1970, average per-student spending has increased by 128 percent — from $4,060 in 1970 to $9,266 in 2005 (adjusting for inflation). During that same span, 17-year-olds showed no progress on their National Assessment of Educational Progress reading scores.

More recently, 2001’s 1,100-page No Child Left Behind law increased federal spending on education 41 percent between 2001 and 2009 while vastly expanding the number of rules and regulations schools had to comply with. The increased federal spending has led only to weakened state testing standards and little to no increase in school choice.

What Can Go Right
When the report was first issued in 1983, President Ronald Reagan offered a strong, contrasting vision for reform:

I believe that parents, not government, have the primary responsibility for the education of their children. … So, we’ll continue to work in the months ahead for passage of tuition tax credits, vouchers, educational savings accounts, voluntary school prayer, and abolishing the Department of Education. Our agenda is to restore quality to education by increasing competition and by strengthening parental choice and local control.

Regrettably, Reagan was not able to conquer Washington’s entrenched special interests (like teachers unions) to implement his vision. But 25 years later, limited progress on has been made on expanding school choice.

Today,  13 states and the District of Columbia support private school choice in some fashion. Millions more students can take advantage of choice within public schools  nationwide. Research on existing programs shows: 1) parents participating in choice programs are more satisfied with their children’s education; 2) private school choice positively affects public schools faced with competition; and 3) children in charter schools outperform comparable public school students.

What Congress Can Do
Although the word “education” does not appear in the Constitution, federal government intervention in public schooling has exploded since the 1960s. Conservative principles for reforming federal action in American education include:

  • Resist increased federal authority: The federal government provides 9.2 percent of funding for public education. Members of Congress should recognize the limits of federal authority in education and resist expanding it.
  • Streamline programs and bureaucracy: Congress ought to take steps to consolidate or eliminate federal programs, dramatically prune the bureaucracy, and provide funding directly to state and local govern­ments—and let them determine how to allocate resources to best assist students.
  • Protect transparency and restore state authority: Congress should reform No Child Left Behind to liberate states from excessive federal regulations and bureaucracy and give state and local authorities the opportu­nity to implement reforms designed to meet local students’ needs most effectively.

Our nation’s children deserve, and our future economic competitiveness demands, a new approach to education. The old model of increased federal spending and intervention has not worked. States must expand parental choice so that schools and teachers can be held accountable.

Quick Hits:

  • Earth Policy Institute founder and president Lester Brown and Clean Air Task Force climate specialist Jonathan Lewis ask Congress to rethink increased 2007 biofuel mandates: “These ‘food-to-fuel’ mandates were meant to move America toward energy independence and mitigate global climate change. But the evidence irrefutably demonstrates that this policy is not delivering on either goal. In fact, it is causing environmental harm and contributing to a growing global food crisis.”
  • The irreplaceable core of the cap-and-trade solution to global warming, the United Nations body that grants carbon credits, still has no scientific process for issuing carbon credits.
  • Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore says he left the movement when he realized it had “evolved into an organization of extremism and politically motivated agendas.”
  • Large “environmental festivals” designed to promote environmental “dialogue” often leave crater-sized environmental footprints.
  • Efforts by conservative House Republicans to restore the party’s fiscal credibility turned into “an intraparty election-year earmark fight” as the “appropriator branch” of the GOP continues to submit earmark requests to leadership.