Education policy has often stumped or scared conservatives. It shouldn’t—we’ve long sided with children and parents against special interests—and especially not now. Federal education policy has all the defects that fueled activists’ ire this election season: skyrocketing spending, bureaucratic meddling and overreach into states’ constitutional authority. And it still leaves American children behind their potential.

Washington first ventured into local school policy with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). The 31-page, $1 billion Great Society project redistributed wealth to low-income districts, aiming to close the achievement gap between needy students and their peers.

Forty-five years later, the gap remains, educational performance has generally stagnated, and graduation rates haven’t improved.

What has changed is the federal role. ESEA has grown into a 600-page bureaucratic labyrinth known as the No Child Left Behind Act, with a mandate for everyone to hate. The annual price tag to taxpayers: $25 billion.

Conservatives can set a bold new course on education, beginning with these three priorities for federal reform:

  • Stop the Spending Spree: Federal K-12 education spending has increased 116% since 1980. In 2009, the U.S. Education Department saw a one-time windfall from the Obama “stimulus” package that instantly (and, thankfully, temporarily) doubled its budget. The administration has since called for a nearly 10 percent increase in FY 2011. It’s time to return to the more sober spending levels of FY 2008, while asking tough questions about federal programs’ cost-effectiveness overall.
  • Restore Federalism: Federal intervention has failed to improve American education, and Washington should get out of the way and send dollars and decision-making back to those closest to the child. That’s the argument conservatives will make in the looming debate over reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. Their alternative is the A-PLUS Act, sponsored by Sens. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and John Cornyn (R-TX). The plan would allow state leaders to consolidate funding from dozens of federal K-12 education programs and direct it to the most pressing education needs in their states without all the federal red tape.
  • Promote Parental Choice in Education: Every child should be free to attend a safe and effective school. Parents should have the power to choose such a school, with money that follows the child. In Washington, D.C., vouchers currently permit 1,200 students to escape the failing and often violent public schools. But congressional opponents, led by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), have tried to kill school choice. The Obama administration even revoked the scholarships of 216 students promised a spot in the program last year. Speaker-elect John Boehner (R-OH), a strong voucher proponent, met with scholarship families last Monday on his first day back in the office after elections, signaling his priority of restoring and expanding parental choice in our nation’s capital.

Education reform should begin but not end in Washington. For all its spending, the federal government remains only a 10 percent stakeholder in local education. The most potent reforms come from state capitals and, after historic Republican gains in legislatures and key gubernatorial wins, the broken status quo could face significant overhaul. For enduring impact, state reforms should:

  • Tackle the Pension Problem: In many states, teacher pension plans have helped make state budgets unsustainable. The Manhattan Institute estimates that teacher pension plans’ unfunded liabilities collectively amount to roughly $933 billion. Less than a quarter of that is due to the stock market’s recent poor performance; most of the deficit comes from poorly planned defined benefit plans and chronic under funding. State leaders cannot afford to postpone dealing with the pension crisis. Delay will only make a bad situation even worse. Shifting to defined contribution plans is one place to start.
  • Promote State Systemic Education Reform: State leaders should focus on results rather than inputs, and empower parents and teachers based on those results. For decades, teachers unions and their allies have clamored for more funding with little to show for it. Now states like Florida have set the pace by shifting to results-oriented policy that rewards achievement and gives students better opportunities when schools fail. Gov. Jeb Bush’s systemic reform has made impressive strides where federal policy has perennially failed. Black students in Florida have made academic gains at twice the rate of their peers nationwide in the past decade. Hispanic students match or outperform statewide averages in 31 states. Other states should follow suit by adopting the key ingredients of systemic reform: authentic accountability to parents and taxpayers, parental choice in education, and performance-based rewards for teachers.

Whether in Washington, D.C. or state capitals, midterm momentum offers conservatives a wide field for education reform where liberals have failed. Seizing the initiative could be one of the most important steps toward the goal of ensuring freedom and prosperity that animated this election cycle.

Cross-posted at ConservativeHome’s Platform.