Twelve years ago a Republican Congress and a Democrat president came together in a bipartisan fashion and passed one of the nation’s strongest charter school laws for the Washington, D.C., school system. The charter schools are publicly funded on a per-pupil basis and must accept any student who applies (if there are more applicants than spaces, a lottery system decides who the school can take). While each school must take everyone, they are also free to set their own rules for expelling students. More importantly, the charter schools are free from union contracts, so they have the freedom to decide who the hire and fire.

Today there are 60 charter schools on 92 campuses educating more than 26,000 students. And as The Washington Post reports: “Students in the District’s charter schools have opened a solid academic lead over those in its traditional public schools. … Charters have been particularly successful with low-income children, who make up two-thirds of D.C. public school students.”

As President-elect Barack Obama looks to fulfill the promises he made on the campaign trail to implement “a new vision for a 21st century education,” The Heritage Foundation sincerely hopes he looks to the charter movement’s success in the District of Columbia as a guide for much-needed reform.

Since 1970 American taxpayer per-pupil spending on public schools has doubled after adjusting for inflation. Since 1985, combined federal spending on K-12 education has increased by 138% (adjusting for inflation). And what do Americans have to show for all this increased spending? Nothing. American students’ reading scores have remained relatively flat since 1970. Throwing money at public schools has not worked. More fundamental reform is needed. To that end, Heritage recommends:

  • Reform Federal K-12 Education Programs to Encourage State and Local Reform and Facilitate Greater Parental Choice: After seven years, experience has shown that No Child Left Behind has failed to spur meaningful improvement. Instead, NCLB has increased the administrative burden on states and localities and created perverse incentives for states to weaken academic standards. NCLB should be reformed to give states the opportunity to opt out of federal regulations and receive funding in a block grant if certain requirements, including maintaining academic transparency through state-level testing and public reporting, are met. This approach would allow state policymakers — with greater input from parents and other stakeholders — to take responsibility for strengthening public education in local communities.
  • Protect and Expand School Choice in Washington, D.C.: In addition to D.C.’s successful charter school movement, Congress also created the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program in 2004. The program, which had bipartisan support in Congress and the backing of then-D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, is currently helping 1,900 disadvantaged children attend private schools in the District. Surveys have shown that participating parents are more satisfied with their children’s education, and a testing evaluation has reported that participating students scored higher than children who remained in public school. The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program should be maintained and expanded to give children the opportunity to attend a safe and effective school.

Obama was right to say during his campaign that “we cannot be satisfied until every child in America … has the same chance for a good education that we want for our own children.” But four decades of experience with increasing federal involvement has shown that Washington cannot deliver on that promise. Instead of further expanding federal authority in education, Obama’s administration should empower those who have more power to make a difference in children’s education, especially parents.

Quick Hits:

  • Czech President Vaclav Klaus described global climate issues as “a silly luxury.”
  • The nonprofit organization founded by a Service Employee International Union local spent nothing on its charitable purpose — to develop housing for low-income workers — during at least two of the four years it has been operating.
  • The hundreds of rules, regulations and letters of understanding that make up the labor contract between Ford and the United Auto Workers is 2,215 pages long and weighs 22 pounds.
  • A new book published by MIT and written by economists concludes that minimum wage laws reduce employment opportunities for less-skilled workers, reduce their earnings, do not reduce poverty, and have long-term adverse effects on wages and earnings by reducing the acquisition of human capital.
  • Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has increased the size of the economic stimulus package she will support when Congress reconvenes next month, saying it will need to be $500 billion to $600 billion.