President Barack Obama announced Monday that $900 million in federal grants in the proposed FY 2011 budget would be available to school districts and administrators who work to transform roughly 5,000 failing school across the nation. While the proposal encourages transformation of the few thousand schools that produce half of America’s yearly 1.2 million high school dropouts, the reliance on federal government resources and direction to rescue America’s educational system falls short of true reform.

The President’s proposal, detailed in a subsequent press release, encourages early intervention programs for students at risk of dropping out and an emphasis on college readiness programs like advanced placement courses and dual enrollment. Specific accountability measures include replacing the management and half the teaching staff of a low-performing school, closing the school, restarting a school under a charter’s management, or transforming a school through increased teacher training and support. The President went on to emphasize the role of government in reforming failing schools, while noting the part parents, teachers, and the community can play in education America’s students. He stated:

Government has a responsibility. Government can help educate students to succeed in college and in a career. Government can help provide the resources to engage dropouts and those at risk of dropping out and, when necessary, the government has to be critically involved in turning around the lowest performing schools. …Education is not and cannot be the task of government alone. It’s going to take non-profits and businesses doing their part through alliances like America’s Promise. It will take parent’s getting involved in their child’s education consistently. Going to parent-teacher conferences, helping their children with their homework.

While the plan announced by President Obama expressed a laudable motivation to reform failing schools and lower dropout rates, the continual dependence on federal aid and discretion for salvation from poorly performing high schools misses the heart of effective reform found most often in greater competition and parental choice. Rather than spend almost $1 billion of additional federal grants, states and school districts can encourage and implement meaningful reforms that expand access to good teachers and increase parental involvement in students’ education.

An expansion of effective virtual schools and the use of online classrooms may address many of the concerns outlined by the President at a reduced cost to taxpayers.  Virtual schools not only increase students’ access to high quality and advanced classes and educators, they also foster the innovation that President Obama sees as integral to keeping students engaged in academics and on track to graduation.

As the President noted, increased parental involvement in students’ education will dictate the success of any school reform effort. But rather than relegate a parent’s role to conference attendee and homework helper, why not empower families with a meaningful choice in their child’s education through school voucher programs? As demonstrated in the Washington, D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, providing parents the ability to choose a safe and effective school for their children means better performing students. The use of voucher programs and other school choice initiatives also increases competition among schools, which may lead to a natural reformation or closure of failing schools.

President Obama concluded his remarks by saying:

The stakes are too high – for our children, for our economy, for our country. It’s time for all of us to come together – parents and students, principals and teachers, business leaders and elected officials – to end America’s dropout crisis.

Agreed. All of those parties, from students to principals to representatives, should work together for effective reform that keeps money in the wallets of taxpayers and educational choice in the hands of parents and students.

Sarah Torre is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: